Movie Review: “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” – No Apologies Needed

Written by Emily McWilliams November 18, 2012

“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is a documentary film about one of China’s most vocal and famous artists and activists.  Ai Wewei first garnered international attention when he helped design the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the Beijing 2008 Olympics.  Even though Weiwei collaborated on a government fueled project, after the completion of the stadium, Weiwei turned to the internet to tell the world about the Olympics being nothing more than government propaganda.  Weiwei’s blog posts about the Olympics focused international attention on this artist, even when the Chinese government tried to silence him.  It was the 2008 Szechwan earthquake however, that really propelled Weiwei’s international artistic and activist status.  Criticizing the government’s lack of transparency as they hid the number of fatalities (many of whom were children who were killed when their poorly built schools collapsed), Weiwei made it his mission to personally record the names of the victims.  He also produced a mass-installation project featuring 9000 children’s backpacks representing the young victims of the earthquake.  The film captures Weiwei’s struggle to promote change and freedom of expression in a society where the government is consistently trying to silence him, as well as the role of art and social media in activist efforts.

Portrait of an Artist

Weiwei’s art ranges from photography, film, mixed media, sculpture, and large-scale installations.  He is considered the Andy Warhol of Beijing and was named in 2011 as the Most Powerful Contemporary Artist by “ArtReview”. The film’s director, Alison Klayman, was given unprecedented access to Weiwei’s studios, workshops, and exhibitions.  The film only offered a glimpse into the wide array of artwork that Weiwei has produced, as the film was focused primarily on Weiwei’s activism and the historical role of the artist in China.  That being said, the art that was shown was ambitious and thought-provoking, even if it was not explained.  It is clear from Weiwei’s work that he is unafraid to push the boundaries with art and that he deserves the title as one of the world’s most progressive artists.


When the film is not featuring Weiwei’s art it is focusing on his personal life and the restrictions he faces from the Chinese government.  Weiwei’s home is under video surveillance because of his outspoken messages.  He received serious head trauma and brain injury as the result of brutality while in custody, and in 2011, Weiwei was held in an undisclosed location for 81 days by the government.  Despite the threats to his life, Weiwei continues to be active in the public’s eye, inspiring protests and international attention to China’s human rights record.  The foregrounding of social media in the film showed how activism in the 21st century is becoming more accessible and global, as activists turn to outlets on the internet.

Art as the Key to Change

The documentary itself was very traditional and straightforward, combining interviews, new, and archival footage.  Little experimentation was done with the film’s aesthetic and editing and this was probably the best choice.  To make a film about Ai Weiwei “artistic” would have probably conflicted with Weiwei’s own art featured in the film, and his political messages.  Unlike the Banksy helmed “Exit Through the Giftshop”, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” was not as cynical about the contemporary art world, and left the viewer with a feeling that art can really bring about change.

“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”, is not the most compelling documentary I’ve ever seen, but it was interesting to learn about a social movement and society I am not familiar with.  The film has a few issues with pacing and some contradictory messages, but overall it is a relevant examination of art and activism in the digital age.

My Rating: 7/10

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