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You don’t need to see a documentary about Ai Weiwei to know that the odds are against him. Though Chinese authorities have relaxed the conditions of his house arrest, allowing him to leave his home without reporting his whereabouts to police, they have also introduced pornography and bigamy charges against the artist for appearing nude in a photograph with other nude figures. China still claims that Ai owes $2.1 million in taxes, and authorities have not returned his passport to him.
So Ai Weiwei will not be leaving China to attend any of the film festivals screening Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a new documentary about the artist by Alison Klayman. Neither will any other Chinese dignitaries be in attendance: China withdrew its participation from the Sheffield Doc/Fest in Britain after its organizers refused the Chinese Embassy’s request that they pull Never Sorry.
Truthfully, Never Sorry wouldn’t work if Chinese police weren’t doing their part today—and Ai knows that. “If we don’t push, there’s nothing happening,” the artist says, in an effort to offer up an explanation for why he is always, always fighting—why he photographed his middle finger in Tiananmen Square; why he researched and then published on his blog the number of schoolchildren killed (5,212) by the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake as a result of shoddy school construction on the anniversary of the quake; why he continues to use Twitter even though Chinese authorities have blocked him from the Internet. “If we don’t push, there’s nothing happening.”
In Never Sorry, Ai talks at length about why he isn’t sorry: He can’t afford to be. Klayman asks him why he is so brave. “I’m more fearful than other people,” Ai says. “If you don’t act, the dangers become stronger.” That’s why, when he realized he was being followed as he was filming Lao Ma Ti Hua (“Disturbing the Piece”)—his own documentary, on environmental activist Tan Zuoren, another dissident—he marched straight to the car that had been tailing him and asked the driver, casually, whether he was following him.
Ai thinks of himself as a chess player, he says. “Now I’m waiting for my opponent to make a move.” With Never Sorry, he may have put China in check. One of the film’s smaller but significant accomplishments is explaining so much inside baseball, especially in framing the influence of contemporary art and Chinese history on Ai’s work in a way that any viewer can understand. The movie’s many interviews with people who put themselves at risk to help Ai carry out his work offer a sympathetic template for the viewer: How can you not adore this avuncular rebel? It doesn’t seem possible that the state has an answer for Ai. Let’s hope not, anyway.
The film shows at 3 p.m. Saturday at AFI Silver 1. $13. Read the rest of Washington City Paper‘s Silverdocs reviews here.