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Ai Weiwei:  Never Sorry is a documentary film that’s a three-fer.  It will be interesting and instructive, even moving, to those interested in art, those interested in China, and those engaged in revealing, pushing and prodding the powerful in a world going wrong.

Those in the west who pull their hair out or grow cynical about moving immovable objects will take heart from Weiwei’s determined, mold-breaking art and art in the service of the underdog.

He first came to prominence as a consultant for the famous bird’s nest Olympic stadium in Beijing, 2008, and then lept up several tiers of fame when he withdrew his name from the project, one year before the games,  and denounced the Chinese Authorities for evicting tens of thousands of poor from the land that became the Olympic playground.

His fame in China grew following the disastrous May, 2008, Sichuan earthquake in which some 4.8 million were left homeless.  7,000 school rooms are estimated to have collapsed, with children inside of them, because of shoddy, “tofu” contruction. 5,000 students died.  Instead of taking the lead in accountability the government busied itself in putting down gatherings of anguished parents, often whose only child had died in the rubble. Ai Weiwei took it on himself to give voice to the families and to name the children.  It was both an “art” project, and an organizing one.   Using social media, teams of interviewers were recruited and sent to the affected areas to find names, birthdays, favorite toys, and collect words from the families.  They had to learn to keep out of the sight of the authorities, and deny connection to the ‘notorious” Ai Weiwei. Their findings were compiled and  made available on-line.  The work and Ai Weiwei’s thoughts and motivation are documented in the film.

One the first anniversary of the earthquake, he extended the project by twittering to his followers to pick a child’s name and say it to a digital recorder and send it in. The on-line memory became even more powerful, and communal, with thousands of voices speaking the names. Of course, it was also an act of resistance.  Each person knew that the simple saying of a child’s name was a prod of shame against the government, and they themselves liable to be identified as agitators and troublemakers.

For a major show of his art in Munich, Germany, Weiwei created a facade over the entire museum, made entirely of colored back-packs, the kind used by school-children, and had the design spell out a mother’s words: “She lived happily for seven years.”

I was most taken by the organizing stories and the courage of Ai Weiwei and his friends.  Filming a policeman filming Ai Weiwei takes some nerve.  The Chinese police are ubiquitous, and need not be gentle with those they confront, yet the youngsters persist.  A wonderful scene has Weiwei snatching the sunglasses from the face of one of his persecutors “So I can see you.”  Remarkably all this is done without provoking words or escalations of anger, though one of his friends refers to him at one point as a “hooligan.”  His persona is one of a wise trickster, whose opposition is geared to teaching, as much as to stopping the injustice of the moment.

The scenes of his thinking through art pieces, and putting in installations in Munich and at the Tate in London, will be interesting to everyone, artist or not.  In fact, his playful use of materials, and sense of analogs between art and the world will give a new appreciation of pieces we might previously have thought of as non-art, or as a practical joke.

While the film won’t bring you the edge of your seat or dissolve you in tears, it brings an enormous amount of historical, political and biographical information — much of it unknown to us– to the viewer.  Ai Weiwei’s pride and support for well known dissident, Liu Xiobo, not only tells us about Weiwei, but about the imprisoned writer as well. His ability to express himself, succinctly and often humorously — and often in English– will keep the ah hah moments coming.  Alison Klayman, the film maker, got a lucky break in the timing of her work, as he came to heightened international attention following his arrest and imprisonment, but it would have been interesting in any case.

Don’t miss “Never Sorry,” you’ll learn all sorts of things.