Artist Ai Weiwei is good at maintaining a benign facial expression – a begrudging smile, as if tiny drops of rain just started interrupting the day's happy mood. He wears it most all the time, particularly when describing the constant drip-drip of harassment by Chinese authorities for his human-rights activism.
As possibly the world's most important Chinese sculptor and conceptual artist at the moment (at least outside China where he gets far more exposure), Ai is both an honest and irreverent personality. He's plain-spoken, but his sentences are brief, as if he is keenly aware of each word. He is uncompromisingly critical in his art and writing of the arbitrary power the government wields. At the same time, he'll just as often photograph himself raising his middle finger at authority or, in one notorious shot, jumping naked with only his genitals covered and a caption which, read aloud in Chinese, sounds like swear words directed at the Communist Party.
That's the tension riding throughout the documentary. In Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, the young filmmaker and journalist Alison Klayman never really answers the ultimate question: What is the artist really thinking deep down? Instead, she lets the camera roll, providing a valuable look inside Ai's busy life and the circumstances that shaped his art and activism.
He is the son of the great modern poet Ai Qing, whose outspokeness and suppression obviously impacted the son's psyche. Ai Qing was a member of the Communist Party and had been imprisoned and tortured by the Nationalists, but he then endured violent persecution during the Anti-Rightist Movement of the late 1950s and into the 1960s Cultural Revolution. The family was sent to 19 years of re-education and hard labour in the distant province of Xinjiang, the documentary notes.
Ai himself says little of his father's plight. It was simply a "strange time," he says.
Others interviewed in the documentary see a direct similarity between Ai Qing's romantic outspokeness and his son's activism. "One time during a demonstration," says Ai's brother Ai Dan, "I remember someone used brushes and ink, the kind we do calligraphy with, to splatter my dad's face. His whole face was covered in black ink. Another time someone used a gun to beat his back. Things like that happened many times. Weiwei saw all of this."
Ai himself adds, "My dad tried to kill himself many times. These are experiences I can not erase."
The artist's work often has a hint of violence, most explicitly his photos of himself smashing a Neolithic pot or defacing ancient vases with dripping paint or hand-drawn Coca-Cola logos. Yet other times, his work is incredibly calm and expansive, like the 100 million tiny, hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds with which he covered the floor of London's Tate Modern gallery in 2010.
It is Ai's simpler work, though, which has gotten him into trouble with the government, such as simply collecting the names of more than 5,000 students killed in the 2008 Shechuan earthquake and having them printed on sheets of paper and displayed. The message is obvious, to show the effect of the shoddy construction of the schools which collapsed in the earthquake and the government's attempts to cover it up. Displaying the students' names particularly escalated his problems with authorities, more than his criticism of the dislocation of Beijing residents caused by the 2008 Olympic Games, even after he had helped design the centrepiece "bird's nest" stadium.
His blog was shut down. Video surveillance cameras were installed at his home studio. His support of other dissidents resulted in clashes with the police, who have sometimes turned violent, especially one night when he was struck by an officer. Ai continues to hit back by legal means. It all came to a head in the spring of 2011 when he was imprisoned for three months on charges of tax evasion, sparking international protest.
Yet the most startling scene in the film is when he returns home after confinement. He politely tells the journalists waiting outside his home studio that he is on bail and can not talk. He smiles and repeatedly declines to comment. It is utterly contrary to his true character.
His eyes are still keenly concentrating, though, darting behind his benign expression. He may still seem enigmatic, but we don't need to know his deepest thoughts. The intensity of his daily life and the persecution he continues to face is more than enough to understand who he is and what he is enduring.