At one point during the documentary about the artist Ai Weiwei, someone wonders how he can be so fearless in his defiance of the Chinese government, and he disagrees with the characterization.
He’s not fearless, he says, he’s fearful, fearful of what the future will be if people like him don’t do something.
Those kinds of insights are scattered throughout “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” a stirring portrait of an artist speaking freely in a society without free speech. As an internationally famous artworld celebrity, Ai has a little more leeway than other activists, some of whom are in jail.
But he has plenty to be fearful about, as director Alison Klayman discovers in the course of following Ai Weiwei around for a couple of years, a period that includes his own incarceration in 2011.
While uncovering information about the thousands who died in an earthquake (shoddy construction resulted in many deaths), Ai is beaten up by police, an assault that resulted in a potentially life-threatening blood clot.
He follows that experience by dutifully attempting to file a complaint with Chinese authorities, a process he knows will fail but that he is determined to attempt. Passivity is the problem, he suggests, and he is driven to make the effort, even in the face of certain defeat.
These scenes contrast with Ai’s experiences in the art world, during major exhibitions of his work in London and Munich, where we see the effect of his large-scale projects. Clearly, he could have a nice life if he just went along with things.
But he can’t do that. He was involved in the design of the much-praised “Birdcage” stadium at the Beijing Olympics, and the government built him a large studio complex for his projects. But before the games took place he denounced the authorities for presenting a false face to the world.
Some of this may create the impression that Ai Weiwei is one serious individual. And he is, but he’s one of those serious people whose humor is constant, and wickedly focused. For instance, in 2011 the Chinese government announced they were demolishing the studio they’d built for him, and Ai threw a dinner party for dozens of friends at the studio the night before the demolition.
He’s also mischievous on Twitter. “Never Sorry” makes the case that the world of social media is inextricable from Ai’s efforts to combine his art with his activism, and his ability to create interest (instantly tweeting photographs of his confrontations with police, for instance) and rally support is remarkable.
Along with everything else, what comes across in this movie is a personality, a cheeky, impertinent soul who sees the oppressions of current-day China and approaches them as a politically motivated prankster with Marxist tendencies (Groucho, not Karl). Along with its other points, this movie will make you glad that Ai Weiwei is out there.
“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” (3 stars)
A documentary about the celebrated Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who has become as famous in recent years for his defiance of the Chinese government as for his art. It’s a stirring portrait, not least because Ai brings a cutting humor to his activism, even when he is in real danger. In Mandarin and English, with English subtitles.
Rated: R, for language.