In some come circles, the word "artist" might result in a free-association image of a pampered poseur, a person who lives on government grants and bites the hand that feeds him.
Please meet Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
He is best known for designing the so-called Birds Nest Stadium for the Beijing Olympics. When the eyes of the world were upon him, he organized a boycott of the Olympics on the grounds that the games painted a benign picture of the Chinese government. This was at odds with reality, which was that the regime displaced thousands from their homes to build Olympic facilities, and discouraged ordinary Chinese citizens from participating in the ordinary social intercourse of the Olympics.
This documentary by Philadelphia journalist Alison Klayman duly documents Ai's process as one of the country's foremost artistic talents. But it is Ai's dogged dissidence that gives the film a sense of suspense that is, at times nerve-racking.
After all, the Chinese government is not known for its warm appreciation of its critics.
Ai comes by his contempt for authority honestly. His father was a poet who fell out of favour with the establishment during the Cultural Revolution, resulting in a campaign of shaming and brutal harassment. Ai himself spent 10 years in New York City, where he gained respect for American institutions that investigated government impropriety. (The Iran Contra hearings were, for Ai, a consciousness-expanding event.)
Ai utilizes the contemporary tools of dissidence. After his popular blog was shut down, he turned to Twitter to keep global attention on his own country's failures and abuses of power, which culminated in 2008 when an earthquake killed more than 68,000 people in Sichuan, including thousands of children who were buried under shoddily constructed "tofu" school structures.
While Ai has more freedom than most Chinese citizens (the camera follows him to his exhibits in London and New York), but he admirably refuses to protect his privilege. When he is attacked by a cop in a hotel room, he doggedly pursues justice, knowing that the system will close ranks against him. When the regime moves to destroy his studio, he organizes a dinner party to perversely celebrate the demolition.
Here in the west, it has become a cheap signifier to refer to an artist as "bold" or "brave" for works that merely ruffle feathers.
As portrayed by Klayman, Ai Weiwei is the real deal, an artist who refuses to equate his artistic freedom with the freedom afforded the average Chinese citizen.
Excerpt of select reviews of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
"A fascinating portrait of a modern artist and activist trying to make a difference within China's repressive political system."
-- Tom Long, Detroit News
"A movie that somehow mixes apprehension for Ai with a feeling of warmth and, certainly, fun."
-- John Anderson, Newsday
"The struggle for free speech in China is given sharp, sobering, disturbing voice through the struggles of cutting edge, digitally savvy, Twitter-loving artist Ai Weiwei."
-- Jim Schembri, 3AW
"Klayman deserves a lot of credit for being in the right place at the right time with the right person. Ai is a treat to follow around, and his courage is clearly more than a pose."
-- Dan Lybarger, KC Active
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Directed by Alison Klayman
3 1/2 stars out of five