A fascinating subject does not inherently make for an excellent documentary. Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is proof of this concept. The film chronicles the life and career of Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist who is among the most influential human rights activists alive today. He is a great man, and to watch any material about him is, on at least some level, compelling.
But Never Sorry is a dramatically bloated, structurally unsound film that does not live up to the greatness of its subject. I respect Klayman and her film tremendously for bringing Weiwei’s story to light, and recommend it enthusiastically as the best current resource on Weiwei, but I do not believe the film is definitive.
Ai Weiwei began his career as an avant-garde artist in New York, a member of China’s first generation of study abroad students, but soon devoted his life and craft to criticizing the Chinese government for human rights violations. He is particularly perturbed by his nation’s lack of free speech, and has, in essence, shaped himself into the human embodiment of free and open expression. Fearless in his efforts, Weiwei’s art can be as vulgar and pointed as it is subtle and gorgeous, but no matter what, he will not allow any external force to control or quell his voice. He uses social media, especially Twitter, to send his message as far as possible, and has amassed a vast, dedicated legion of followers who carry on his cause around the world. He is truly an inspiration.
There are sequences, anecdotes, and subplots in Never Sorry that are as compelling as any captured on film this year. Among them are Weiwei’s efforts to make Chinese police admit to brutality – they beat Weiwei in 2009, causing a head injury that required surgery – a cause that helped open the world’s eyes to corruption in Chinese law enforcement. Even more enthralling is his campaign to discover how many children were killed due to poorly built school buildings in the Sichuan earthquake, a forceful reminder of how crucial open information is to establishing freedom.
Klayman captures these and other stories in comprehensive fashion, illustrating how powerfully Weiwei’s struggles promote the accessibility of knowledge and impact of individual expression. Yet the material is constantly brought down by Klayman’s overreliance on dry expository techniques. Far too much information is doled out through text; while some tidbits are crucial, much of it is unnecessary, as if Klayman does not trust the strength of the footage she has gathered to tell the story. It’s a shame. The footage, lots of it candid, says much of what the text does in subtler, more meaningful ways, and even when there are gaps, textual interruptions are a decidedly uncinematic path to trod.
More importantly, however, is the issue of pacing, for Never Sorry is significantly overlong and unfocused. I understand how the vastness of Weiwei’s accomplishments creates the desire for an all-inclusive portrait, but at a certain point, the message is diluted in the mess of subplots, unrelated anecdotes, and circular, regressive structure. Klayman wishes to show every single side of Weiwei’s activism, in addition to his home life, his childhood, his young adult years, his artistic side, the technical operations of his galleries, and more. It’s far too much for a single film, and as a result, Never Sorry is severely scattershot.
The best documentaries are ones that survey the immensity of their subject by telling a concrete, focused story, one with a clear arc and a dedicated structure. This is what Never Sorry lacks. By failing to hone in on the parts of Weiwei’s story that translate best to the cinematic medium, much of the material rings hollow, and fails to hold the viewer’s attention. The bits about Weiwei’s various art exhibitions, for instance, are theoretically interesting, but when the most compelling material so clearly surrounds the man’s activism, a visit to the latest show feels like little more than wheel spinning. Never Sorry would be dramatically improved if assembled as a disciplined, 45 to 50 minute short film. Feature-length is the wrong format for many documentaries, and this is no exception.
To Klayman’s credit, the final sequence is fantastic. In illustrating the particulars of Weiwei’s 2011 arrest and disappearance, it converges nearly everything the film has said thus far into one powerful culmination point, a shocking display of beauty and horror. It does not fully justify the film’s severe bloat – even here Klayman includes too much, and over-explains several obvious points – but the emotions are undeniable. It’s a finale so impactful that it raised my estimation of the entire film.
Though Never Sorry is imperfect, I find it difficult to protest too ardently about the film’s flaws when the finished product provides such an eye-opening educational tool. Ai Weiwei’s story is one we should all familiarize ourselves with, and no matter many formal complaints I lodge, I still respect the hell out of Klayman for giving audiences this opportunity. This is a fascinating story, an important story, one that reminds us how lucky we are to live in a free country, and how brave those are who live their lives without the most basic of human rights.