Four years ago, for a different Olympics, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei co-designed the Bird’s Nest stadium nestled in Beijing. He then went on record as the first of his countrymen to openly critique his country’s role in the event, saying he would boycott the ceremonies and charging China with exacerbating through malfeasance the damage caused by the recent Sichuan earthquake. Around here is when American documentarian Alison Klayman came in. The resulting product, Never Sorry, starts as a meet-the-artist doc, but having glommed onto whom it glommed onto, it would never have stayed that way for long.
Specifically, it becomes a portrait not only of Ai himself—a bearish epicure who ravenously consumes food, women and attention—but of the social media frenzy that makes him more than a mere artist. Early provocations include 1996’s Dropping a Han Dynasty—depicting just that—and Study in Perspective, in which he gives the bird to landmarks from the White House to Tiananmen Square. More recent pieces like Sunflower Seeds, meant to stress individuality in a country still known for its faceless masses, exhibit more maturity and eloquence, but his real tool proves to be Twitter. Embracing a technology that spreads information instantly while circumventing China’s web censorship, Ai reinvents himself as an activist warrior, able to disseminate his message in the raw rather than only figuratively through shows at the Tate Modern.
Klayman, in the right spot at the right time, is there to document his growing war with Chinese authorities. For most of Never Sorry’s timespan, theirs is a fruitless endeavor: Ai, proven time and again to not give a fuck, cheerfully sends pictures of near-assaults and updates on actual ones—including one that required brain surgery—to his many followers. Despite being purely expository/hagiographic—the only time we hear Klayman’s voice, she’s asking Ai, “Why are you so fearless?”—that doesn’t make Never Sorry less infuriating, particularly once our subject is whispered out of sight for three months, then charged with clearly horseshit tax evasion charges. His fate now, post-film, is better if still uncertain, making Never Sorry nearly as vital a political document as the documentaries Ai himself makes to be passed around underground.