Camera man

Emma Geen reviews Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

As a young art student in New York in the 1980s, Ai Weiwei would use his camera as a diary. Back in China, film remains an important part of his artistic arsenal. When the police place him under surveillance, he films them back. And he keeps filming as they break in to his apartment and assault him. When he reports this injustice, every stage of his struggle within the judicial system is recorded.

His wife remarks that there is no distinction between their life and her husband’s art. One of his assistants says that “it’s not about art, it’s about life”. For Ai has devoted his life to freedom of expression in his art. And it is only because of its dissemination worldwide that the Chinese government is discouraged from “vanishing” him permanently. Perhaps this is why Alison Klayman’s documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is so poignant. It is diary, art, activism and biography rolled into one, and the resulting portrait depicts not just an artist, but an entire country.

Transparency is what Ai demands of his government and it is what he gives himself. The film features interviews with his contemporaries, critics and family. At one particularly intimate moment, his mother implores him to renounce his radicalism in the interests of self-preservation. In another film, with another personality, this would be obtrusive voyeurism, yet it is the defining moment of Never Sorry. It reminds the viewer that Ai’s story is still unfolding, and that this charismatic, sometimes comical man has knowingly placed himself at the mercy of the Chinese regime. His mother remarks that one man can’t change China on his own, yet this is precisely his ambition.

As the credits rolled on the night I saw the film, one man stood up and applauded. He was right to do so. Never Sorry deserves our applause – not just out of appreciation of Ai’s work as an artist, but also to help maintain the pressure on the Chinese government so that he is able to continue working.

Emma Geen is a freelance writer. She tweets @EmmaCGeen and blogs at

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality