Hot Docs 2012: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Ai Weiwei is one of the most vital political artists in the world. He's shown at the biggest galleries, has 150,000 followers on Twitter, even helped to design the famous Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics. He uses his art and his fame to criticize the authoritarianism of the Chinese government: he's photographed himself giving the finger to Tienanmen Square, filmed himself saying "Fuck You, Mother Land", painted over ancient Chinese artifacts with the Coke logo, and ended up boycotting the very same Olympics he'd built the stadium for. When the Chinese government wouldn't release the number of students killed by poorly-built schools during the Sichuan earthquake, it was Ai Weiwei who organized volunteers to find the number themselves, putting together a list of more than 5,000 names. But simply asserting the right to transparency and free speech puts your life at risk in China. In retaliation, the artist has been beaten by police, had his studio torn down, cameras set up outside his home, and disappeared for months last year while he was interrogated by Chinese authorities. Now, he's not allowed to leave Beijing or speak out about politics. And the government is claiming he owes millions of dollars in unpaid taxes.

Before these latest attempts to silence him, Alison Klayman, an American director, filmed Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. The documentary spends some of its time telling the story of his life: a young boy growing up with an artist father who was imprisoned both by Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao's Communists; his decade spent living in New York City as as a young man; his return to China, where he helped bring attention to modern art by secretly selling books full of Warhol and Duchamps. But mostly, it shows him doing what he's been doing for the last few years: putting together installations at galleries around the world, getting under the skin of the government at home in China, and filming, photographing and tweeting everything that happens for the whole world to see.

It's equally inspiring and worrying to watch — especially in the scenes where ordinary Chinese citizens join him in his actions. He and they are clearly making a difference, but that's a dangerous thing to do in China. And the central question Never Sorry asks is one that hasn't been answered yet: just how much of a price will Ai Weiwei have to pay? "I consider myself... a chess player," he says at one point in the film. "My opponent makes a move; I make a move." The Chinese government has promised to lift the restrictions they've placed on him this June. Thanks to the work he's done to this point, the whole world will be watching to make sure that's true. And to see what move Ai Weiwei makes next.

- Adam Bunch

You can follow Ai Weiwei on Twitter @aiww. And follow the film's much more English-oriented account @AWWNeverSorry. As Ai Weiwei says, "Never Retreat. Retweet!"

Find all of our coverage of Hot Docs 2012 here. 

Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at


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