IN THE LEAD UP to the Olympics, much is made of what an honor it is to participate—from the host city's puffed-up pageantry to the opening ceremony's many moving parts. (A battle between Voldemort and a Mary Poppins army? Sure, Danny Boyle, whatever.) But Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who consulted on the design of the 2008 Beijing Olympics' Bird's Nest Stadium, began to distance himself even before the stadium was complete, calling China's ceremony "an elaborate costume party with the sole intention of glorifying the country."
Fifty-four-year-old Ai is both an art-world celebrity and an outspoken critic of China's record on human rights. After 2008's Sichuan earthquake, he worked tirelessly to identify those killed in the quakes, with particular emphasis on the schoolchildren who died in shoddily constructed schoolhouses. The Chinese government responded to such criticism by shutting down his blog (he's extremely active on social media), subjecting him to constant surveillance, and, in 2011, briefly imprisoning him.
First-time filmmaker Alison Klayman gets all of the above on film in her remarkably absorbing and affectionate documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Klayman met Ai in 2008 in Beijing, and a gig filming a photo show her roommate curated—made up of snaps from Ai's time in New York in the 1980s, where he rubbed elbows with figures like Allen Ginsberg—quickly took on a life of its own. "The way he talked about politics, knowing that he publicly put that stuff on his blog—he was this outspoken figure in a way I hadn't met people in China before. I wanted to know more about him, more about what motivates him," Klayman said in a recent interview.
The film ends somewhat abruptly, with footage of Ai's 2011 detention and subsequent release, but the prevailing impression is of a brave, ingenuous artist who's virtually unstoppable in the face of relentless government pushback. As Ai himself puts it, "Life is more interesting if you put a little effort into it."