One of the year's very best documentaries, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry chronicles recent events in the life and work of China's most famous artist, and one of its most tenacious political activists. The film made a splash at this year's Full Frame festival in Durham and just this week was shortlisted for the Best Documentary Oscar. New to DVD and Blu-ray from IFC Films, Never Sorry is a remarkably accomplished film from journalist and first-time director Alsion Klayman.
In the art world, Ai Weiwei is a giant. His sculptures and installations are exhibited worldwide, and he was one of China's homegrown heroes during the 2008 Beijing Olympics — he helped design the famous “Bird's Nest” stadium. Weiwei is also a prolific photographer, filmmaker and — until recently — blogger and Twitter devotee. His freedom, online and off, has been significantly curtailed of late by the Chinese government.
I don't want to give too much away, because part of the surprising suspense in this film comes from watching events of the last few years unfold. Director Klayman filmed Weiwei from 2008 to 2011 as the artist clashed with government officials while still mounting his exhibitions and overseeing a small army of volunteers. I would say that the film splits its focus between Weiwei's art and activism, except that those lines are permanently blurred.
For instance, after the devastating 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, Weiwei spent a year gathering the names of more than 5,000 children killed in the tragedy. Chinese government officials had tried to suppress this information for several dubious and depressing reasons. When Weiwei published the list online, in a kind of citizen-investigation-as-art-project, police responded by shutting down his blog and installing surveillance cameras around his home. That, it turns out, was just the beginning. Weiwei would later be physically attacked and forced to demolish his brand-new studio space. Then things got really nasty.
As the film progresses, interviews with Weiwei are interspersed with segments from friends, family and collaborators. There's also a good amount of rather startling on-the-spot footage as the artist squares off with aggressive city cops and government officials. The final scenes are fraught with tension.
What happens to Weiwei — what's still happening to him — is truly frightening. But the movie has moments of humor and tenderness throughout. Director Klayman is no acolyte, either. The film casts a critical eye at key junctures, and the Chinese government is never reduced to evil monolithic status.
The continuing saga of Ai Weiwei is fascinating and packed with drama. That his story has been so skillfully documented by a first-time filmmaker is almost to good to be true. Then again, artists worldwide have been rallying to Weiwei's side these last couple of years. Heads up, Central Committee. I think you've pissed them off.
Extras on both DVD and Blu-ray include deleted scenes and extended interviews.
Also New This Week:
Another Oscar favorite, the bayou fever dream Beasts of the Southern Wild comes to DVD and Blu-ray with bonus extras that fans of the film should savor: deleted scenes, audition reels and a making-of doc.
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The sweet family fable The Odd Life of Timothy Green explores the possibilities of growing your own fifth-grader in the vegetable garden.
Australian funnyman Chris Lilley hits DVD with two series collections, Angry Boys and We Can Be Heroes.
Plus: Jennifer Garner in the dark comedy Butter; lost cetaceans in the documentary The Whale; and the awesomeness that is Kenny goddamned Powers in Eastbound & Down: The Complete Third Season.