Ai WeiWei: Still Not Sorry


If there is no free speech, every single life has lived in vain.”–Ai WeiWei

Ai WeiWei, the Chinese-born impresario of diversity in architectural design, installation, photography, sculpture and multimedia, is known for his outspoken views of protest against China’s repression of free speech. While other lesser-known dissident voices in China, (even 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo) languish in prison for their views without the same level of notoriety to protect them, Ai has become an international hero championing freedom of expression for all.

Alison Klayman’s compelling 2012 documentary “Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry” documents the artist’s brilliance and bravery in the face of governmental brutality and censorship. The film follows Ai as he fearlessly expresses himself through social media and artmaking, with cameras rolling as Chinese authorities shut down his outspoken (and often hilarious blog), send police thugs to beat him up, and hold him in hidden detention.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry OFFICIAL TRAILER from Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry on Vimeo.

Described as an “inside story of a dissident for the digital age who inspires global audiences and blurs the boundaries of art and politics,”  the film’s successful Kickstarter campaign in 2010, initiated the debut filmmaker Klayman’s role as a global spokesperson for Ai’s release, even appearing on The Colbert Report to speak about his then-imprisonment. Through this platform, the filmmaker was instrumental in assisting with his release, though China still holds his passport and he is currently unable to leave the country. The film, which won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, continues to screen internationally and has been available for On Demand viewing at Netflix, further expanding his audience, demonstrating once again the incredible impact documentaries can have on impacting issues of social change and human rights.
Here is Klayman’s interview with Stephen Colbert:


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Ai WeiWei’s mid-00s series of that-certain-finger photographs aims at iconic sites like Tiananmen Square (an image used to promote the film), where in 1989, unarmed Chinese citizens, engaged in a peaceful demonstration in support of free speech democracy, were gunned down en masse by the military.  In China, Google searches have been scrubbed of this piece of history, with many young people completely ignorant of the events. This series of photographs have been described by New York Times critic Holland Cotter in The New York Times:

“…Each picture show the artist’s hand making a one-finger gesture, again rude, at a variety of places familiar and unfamiliar. The equal-opportunity dissing encompasses power sites like Tiananmen Square and the White House, but also, intriguingly, Long Island City, Queens. Together with the history-infused sculpture, the antic pictures give a sense of the versatility of an artist whose role has been the stimulating, mold-breaking one of scholar-clown.”


One-time street artist Shephard Fairey, no stranger to social change activism, recently released a fundraising poster of Ai WeiWei, part of a series that has featured global human rights activists and leaders like Aung Sang Suu Kyi of Burma. The poster image, in stark shades of crimson, ochre and black, shows the artist,  his head partially shaven with a prominent gash on his scalp, a visual reminder of the head injury  sustained in a confrontation with Chinese police in Chengdu in 2010, documented in the film, which required brain surgery. Fairey created the portrait in collaboration with Friends of Ai Weiwei, a group formed to promote awareness of the artist’s status in China where authorities still hold his confiscated passport.


Again in the news again for controversy surrounding the exhibition, “Ai Weiwei: According To What?” at the Perez Museum of Art in Miami, where a Florida artist, Maximo Caminero, protested the lack of local artist representation at the museum, smashed a Han dynasty pot painted by Ai WeiWei valued at 1 million dollars. This act mimics a series of photos, also included in the show, of Ai WeiWei dropping an unpainted piece of Han dynasty pottery on the a gallery floor. Caminero, arrested and charged with criminal mischief, may well have inspired a wry response from the Chinese trickster mastermind.

What are your views on the power of documentary as an art form to champion free speech and human rights? Why do you think Ai WeiWei was released from prison, while Nobel honoree Liu Xiaobo remains in custody? Do you think Ai WeiWei’s continued artmaking and international acclaim will ultimately impact human rights issues in China, even the face of online censorship and erasure of history and news counter to accepted governmental narratives? What is the role of social media in the expansion of Ai WeiWei’s art and messaging?

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  1. Jae Chan Pyo

    China is very well known for having strict regulations on media. For example, it is not possible to get into american websites such as Facebook, and also there are many regulations from the government when they want to open or business. It is very interesting to see this in the modern society, where freedom is speech is guaranteed in most of the countries, beside the few communist, pre-communist countries such as North Korea.
    To have a strong country with healthy government, the balance of the power of the government and the citizen is very important. When the balance gets ruined, it is when the black market rises and the country gets problems. I believe its very important to have people/artist like Ai Weiwei who is not afraid to speak up and make presentations and exhibitions that criticizes the country that lacks the balance between citizens and government.
    Artist are not just about making pretty projects, but also are the people who speak up in the front with their talent on art, making art pieces that represents the crowd’s mind well. It is very touching to see how he is trying hard to make a better country, a better world.

  2. Deisy

    think documentaries are a great way to champion free speech and human rights, specially when they are powerful & informative. I think the reason Ai was released from prison because of the film & all the people that support him, that made the government take note. Like the director said on the Colbert report, it doesn’t look good for China. When a cause is calling so much attention, governments take notice (either ignore it or do something about it).

    I think his art will definitely continue to impact Chinese human rights and censorship issues. I think specially now with social media/blogging and his international acclaim. The more people know his art, the more they’ll know about the issues his art is about. I think they go hand in hand.

    I believe social media is everything when it comes to Ai’s campaign. It is needed to expand his message and to get the word out not only in China but also around the world. Without social media, this message may have never reached Miami or the US.

  3. Ben Ruhland

    As I mentioned in last week’s post, I am a firm believer that Documentary filmmakers are the ambassadors of free speech and serious advocates for human rights. The foundations of documentary films are to ask questions and to raise awareness on issues. Another great example of the power of documentary is how Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line freed a wrongly convicted man from prison and death row. On free speech and media in China I suggest viewing High Tech, Low Life.

    The release of Ai Wei Wei and the financing of his new studio does baffle me. I hope that his exhibition coming up at Brooklyn Art Museum answers questions. Regarding Liu Xiaobo, I am wondering if China takes him more seriously as he is Politician and not expressing his views via media and art? I do think that Ai Wei Wei’s continued work will play a role in awareness and change. Again, he is interactive and reaches out directly to children and families and I think that he is like a Venus God in this light.

  4. Kathleen Sweeney

    Ben, great example of The Thin Blue Line and thanks for the link to High Tech, Low Life, which has a great quote in the trailer: “My courage only exists in my writings.” This sums up the way social media has provided an echo-voice system of amplification for ideas that acts in symbiosis with those activists on the front lines worldwide. Without Ai’s supporters online, his name-recognition and international stature would be much lower and perhaps he would still be in prison. Even though China tries to keep its censorship firewall in place, the truth is educated Chinese digital citizens know how to circumvent it. They may not have access to all of the details about Tiananmen Square uprising through regular channels of online search, but access to all forms of Western pop culture have influenced this generation’s expectations for self-expression.

    Barbara Kopple’s landmark documentary Harlan County, USA, which won the Academy Award in 1977 is another example: it championed the cause of Appalachian coal miners and set a model for social cause documentaries worldwide, without the echo-effect of social media to amplify the cause. Coal miners in Harlan County joined the UMWA union as documented in the film, improving conditions for miners and their families substantially. The documentary team became actively involved in the cause, which has often been the case with the most successful documentaries of recent times: Born into Brothels, Bowling for Columbine, An Inconvenient Truth….

  5. Evyenia Constantine

    I think using whatever means to support and encourage free speech, such as awareness through documentaries and social media is vital to informing people and getting the word out. I can only imagine how scary it must be at times for the people who do this, such as Ai Wei-Wei, but we need people like this, and we need more people brave enough to take a stand a speak up. The more people who are aware of what is going on, the more people that can potentially become involved. I’m thinking now of the fact that Turkey’s PM Erdogan has banned Twitter, attempting to wipe out expression and free speech. Some people are doing their best to find a way around it to express themselves. The fact that this happened is honestly repulsive, and a refection of oppression.

  6. Kristin Ferrandino

    Specifically, I remember when Ai WeiWei’s Still Not Sorry premiered and the paramount impact it had on the let alone simply the art community, but American society. I watched my friends, even those not remotely in my immediate creative social circle, be completely taken by the picture; even they were prompted to take action. This being said and as I have spoken of earlier, I think documentaries are single-handedly one of the best vehicles for social change. The visual aspect of them, the first-hand accounts, the absolute craft all lend a hand to creating a poignant and touching outreach for help, or even simply to inspire.
    Not only an optimistic hope, I do feel that AiWeiWei’s work has and will continue to impact any Chinese human rights issues. His legacy, of what will certainly long and principal one, is sure to inspire Chinese citizens for generations to come. The extortion of online censorship issues and misuse of power have sent shockwaves worldwide, certainly with due and just cause. Clearly WeiWei has been able to almost solely spread his message with Twitter, an exemplary model of how social media can take policies by storm.

  7. SeungMi Kim

    I believe the way that Ai WeiWei utilized the documentary as both an art form and a social media form to deliver an important message to the public is smart. Combining artistic elements with a serious documentary form is such an effective way to inform and stimulate crowds in a powerful way. I think Ai WeiWei could be released from prison since his brave efforts on claiming against serious social problems were recognized by public who then started advocating his strong views and claims. As the one who has bravely stood up for free speech and rights, Ai WeiWei’s continued artmaking as well as international acclaim will continue to profoundly impact on those serious issues regarding of human rights in China. As more and more people notify his works as well as what they are meant to be, Ai WeiWei’s international acclaim will widely be spread through this powerful social media, which takes a powerful role in expanding his art and messaging. By continuting his artmaking, Ai WeiWei is showing and proving that art is not just art, but also an essential form to quickly and effectively transfer acclaims and spreading awareness worldwide.

  8. Emily Spierer

    I think that social media offers a number of ways to raise awareness and create social change regarding a number of issues throughout the world. Without the influence of social media, I don’t think that Ai WeiWei would have been able to reach the same demographic and audience that he has, in order to draw attention to his activist efforts expressed through art specifically, in China. Furthermore, I think that the expository documentary film style has become a very influential medium in which people can expose the world to different social issues and problems that need to be acknowledged and gain traction in order to implement social change. Ai WeiWei’s documentary pushes the boundaries of art in China, as he risks his life in order to raise awareness and speak out against the harsh and strict policies of the Chinese government. Within his film, Ai WeiWei not only demonstrates his impact as a Chinese artist, but he also demonstrates his level of bravery and selflessness, as he challenges the Chinese government and speaks out against various social issues, through the medium of his art. The ability of social media to promote his documentary on a national scale allows Ai WeiWei’s story to gain as much exposure as possible and inform people about various social issues taking place in China.

  9. Juyeon Jung

    It is not easy thing to stand and speak up. I cannot even imagine how frightening it would be but the number of people who fight against and give awareness of the issues is getting bigger and now we want them with tacit agreement. In that way, Ai Wei-Wei is truly brave; he has impacted the art community and also the American society. Getting involved in the issues can cause bad results at the end, however, finding a way that someone express how he or she thinks is very important. Specifically, documentaries are one of the best mediums for social revolution. While I read the article, I felt personally that Ai Wei-Wei continue his works and bring up those Chinese human right issues to the world. I mean controlling people using their own power is just not right. I really hope his efforts (his message) will evoke people all over the world.

  10. Yoon Hee Song

    I think the impact of documentary that advocates free speech and human rights is great because through this kind of art form, people get information. There are some people who do not really know about such issues and constant exposure is the most effective way to learn about it. Since encountering it through a media form is easier and friendlier, it is one of the powerful ways to spread the seriousness about deprivation of freedom. His continued artmaking and international acclaim would ultimately impact in China because the truth is always there and it can not be changed even with their effort of online censorship and erasure of history. I think Ai WeiWai was released because he is internationally known and if the Chinese government decides to keep him in prison it would likely to bring social condemnation.

  11. Amanda Boyd

    Documentaries, the visual equivalent of a memoir or biography, are immensely powerful and effective when done well (like Alison Klayman’s “A WeiWei: Never Sorry”). Art has long since been a platform for freedom of speech and expression and so it’s only natural that documentaries serve as a prime platform to champion free speech and human rights.

    I think Ai was released from prison purely because it wasn’t a good look, so to speak, keeping him in there. (Neither is keeping Lui Xiaobo, however the former is an artist, not a politician, which may have something to do with it? Ai even states that he does not have a political party, he is an independent artist.)

    I don’t think Ai WeiWei’s continued art making and international acclaim will have that much of an effect on China’s human rights issues; what it does though, is continue to educate a global audience, something that is incredibly important.

  12. Priyanka Paul

    I am not a big fan of documentaries and I usually do not watch them unless it is for a class or if it is about a topic I am really interested in. However the documentary about Ai Weiwei was really interesting and it reminded me about the power an artist can have on the world and how they can give others the will to fight for causes. I think art is a beautiful expression and an incredibly great way to voice ones opinions. One might ask if it is really enough though? I do not think it is enough for one person to be fighting for such a big issue like freedom of speech but it is definitely a start. I believe a documentary made as well as this one definitely has the power to build a whole generation of people who can fight for the issue, like Ai Weiwei is doing. It is likely that the efforts of the Weiwei will not change the human rights issues in China directly but his efforts will be one of the dominant factors that will play a role in the change in China in the future. Millions of people around the world have now heard Weiwei’s story and this knowledge will further spread because social media has that power. His voice is now a movement that will give the new generation a helping hand towards having the courage to fight for human rights issues whether it is the issue of freedom of speech in China or any other issue anywhere in the world. I believe social media makes that possible in today’s generation.

  13. Peta Mni

    While I’ve yet to watch his documentary, this article provides great incentive to do so. My familiarity with his work however is limited to where I do not believe myself qualified to comment too much. Still, I can say just from what I do know is that he is very smart to engage and maintain a large following. Through his art and activism he has obviously touched others so that he now almost belongs to them. If the Chinese government were to “do away with him” it would be a great social cost of creditability and would likely provoke the very revolution they are purportedly trying to prevent.

  14. R.Stauffer

    After last week’s discussion, I watched CitizenFour…this week, after watching the trailer and particularly Alison Klayman’s interview, I feel equally compelled to watch Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry. Something that occurred to me is how little I heard about these documentaries in the mainstream press. I could definitely be overlooking it, but seems like I heard/read nearly nothing regarding CitizenFour until after the Oscars. In fact, the Snowden biopic starring Jospeh Gordon-Levitt seems to have received more buzz, and it doesn’t release until December 2015. I am a big fan of documentaries because they tell the narrative…the behind-the-scenes of someone’s political, social agenda.

    Coming back around to the topic at hand, I think Peta touched on something significant: That Ai Wei Wei seems to almost belong to the people. He is a citizen’s activist, essentially, and I agree that if the Chinese government did away with him, they would be sparking exactly what they’re attempting to avoid. Part of his activism is social media-that could be a reason why people identity with him so much. He is communicating his message the way they are.

    I love it when art takes on human rights, particularly morals, as it seems Ai Wei Wei’s does. It’s clear that social media has become an outlet for issues of ethics…what I am interested to see is how this continues to evolve as social media does. Will we eventually be Snapchatting our artistic, political movements?

  15. Adrienne S

    As some have said above, China is big on regulating the internet usage of its citizens. Google and Youtube are blocked for either promoting a bad image of the government or “inappropriate content”. This raises the question of whether social media can have an impact on the people under a dysfunctional government. Facebook is also blocked, which will make it difficult for a lot of citizens to gain access to this documentary. (Is Netflix also blocked? I’m not quite sure.)

    On the other hand, many of the younger generation of Chinese individuals have found ways around the “Great Firewall” that China has surrounded the internet with. Some have come up with programs that allow them access to many, if not all, of the banned sites. This gives me hope that AI Wei Wei’s story will make it to his people, because, after all, they are the target audience. This movement would be in vain if the people being affected by the issues at hand were not aware of such a movement taking place.

    I agree with Peta when he says that Ai Wei Wei now belongs to his people. He stands for something bigger than himself. He stands for the rights of his people.

  16. bill ritter

    how fascinating that two women – Alison Klayman focusing on Ai Wei Wei – and Laura Poitras focusing on Edward Snowden with “Citizen Four” – are using the power of documentary film to bring the cases and causes of Wei Wei and Snowden to huge numbers of people, and a bigger audience than the artist or whistleblower could reach on their own.
    i’m struck by Ai Wei Wei’s natural ability to rile, and using a kind of Abbie Hoffman, “steal this book” approach with not just his art but also his political pranksterism and tough-guy stance to make his points. he’s a cool guy who is trying to make a huge statement. and damnit no government or person is going to stop him.
    his face shows the wear of a stressful 57 years. clearly this is a man, an artist, deeply entrenched in his art and his passions – personal and political.

    • Roderic David

      I think this is a fascinating point you’ve made, both Citizen Four and Never Sorry are helmed by women. It’s very interesting that women, often disenfranchised within film, have the necessary perspective to tell these stories of others who are also disenfranchised. I believe because of films like this, as well the artwork of Ai WeiWei that the attempts to silence their voices are only making them much stronger. WeiWei is representative of so many people and so many ideas, in and outside of China, and his message will continue to be heard.

      • Kathleen Sweeney

        Interesting you bring up the gender issue with directing. Only one woman has won the Oscar for Best Director for a narrative feature (Kathryn Bigelow), with only three other nominated: Lina Wurtmuller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola. However, since the 19 70s and 80s many women have won Oscars for Best Documentary (often as co-Directors) including Maria Floria and Victoria Mudd; Brigitte Berman; Lee Grant; Aviva Slesin; Barbara Kopple (twice); Allie Light; Barbara Trent; Susan Raymond; Freida Lee Mock; Zana Briski; Eva Orner; Audrey Mars; Caitrin Rogers; and now Laura Poitras. Many more have been nominated, and many have won for Documentary Short subject. What does this tell us about cultural priorities, and the role women filmmakers have played in social justice movements? The emergence of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter has meant that even more women have been able to get their documentaries off the ground and onto viewing screens. Such was the case for Alison Klayman who took to Kickstarter successfully for “Never Sorry.” Would the film have been timed to assist with Ai WeiWei’s release from prison without the help of crowdfunding? 2013’s “Blackfish”, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, about the treatment of orca whales at Seaworld wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award (like “Never Sorry”) but has had a huge impact on revealing the cruelty inherent in confining echo-locating cetaceans to small tanks for a lifetime of amusement park entertainment. The result? Seaworld attendance is now at an all-time low due to public awareness-raising and stock for the corporation is tanking. Documentaries remain an increasingly important mode of communication for justice issues worldwide.

  17. Rachel Weidinger

    I think the documentary is just another representation working to tell Ai WeiWei’s story, but more so bring up the issues and explain his reasonings for doing the things he does. I think it’s so interesting to see how he chooses to represent an idea – simple photography with two or three major elements that work to communicate one idea; it’s incredibly effective. I think Ai WeiWei’s release definitely has something to do with his massive virtual following. I think that if he wasn’t so established in the digital space, they would see no reason to release him or other-words, no sense of urgency to release him.

    I think he’s definitely making a stance and illustrating the importance of these issues to the public. It’s only a matter of time until he gets a more active crowd following to help aide him in the fight. I think, similar to the United States it’s all about persuasion. You have to persuade people to understand why you are doing the things that you are doing and why there is such a high sense of urgency to do so. Ai WeiWei is using his media representations as an object of persuasion to the public. I think what’s most profound is his human-like quality. He doesn’t place himself above anyone else – he is on the same level – embracing equality. His social presence is definitely crucial to his efforts to change the current state of the government and embrace free speech. I think he realizes the extent to which his message can be translated across different channels, and uses his art to capitalize on that: “if there is no free speech, every single life has lived in vain.”

  18. Jacqueline

    I think the issue of free speech in this context is a fascinating one, especially because the representation is art and not always speech itself.

  19. Michelle Quach

    It is no doubt that Ai Wei Wei has encouraged and touched many but I mixed feelings if he will ultimately impact human rights in China -only because China is such a highly regulated and strict country. I have yet to see the documentary but I heard very great things about it. It definitely gives him a pass to speak internationally about his life, passion and many problems he faces with the chinese government. He is truly inspirational for taking enormous risks of his own safety to expose the Chinese government and the human rights abuse within China. Its smart for Ai Wei Wei to use a social media to stay in touch with the world; this reemphasizes how powerful the Internet can be.

  20. Sara Maldonado

    I think that a documentary is an incredibly effective method of spreading a message. Specifically in the United States, it is what it takes to get people more informed on a subject and to unite a group of people to take action. I don’t think Ai Wei Wei’s art will have a direct impact on human rights issues but I do think that it will inspire change. It will spur action from those who know him and those who interact with him on social media and other platforms. Social media has a large role in Ai Wei Wei’s impact. Because of its organic and viral nature, he is able to use it to reach a large audience even while in captivity.

  21. Denni Elias

    “Freedom is a really strange thing. Once you have experienced it, it remains in your heart, and no one can take it away”.

    I honestly think that with social media as it is today, we are more and more immersed in real conversations on the web, that do have a big impact in whatever is happening in the world. Ai WeiWei’s artwork and search for freedom of speech is so inspirational and encouraging from so many points of view, and this is why I believe that in the end his movement will always be visible and will change the chinese laws to empower human rights.

    Through his artmaking, Ai WeiWei makes us feel brave and fearless about fighting for a more equal and free society. Documentaries like this seem to become more popular and trascending every time, and in this internet and information age, they really connect us all together. These problems feel closer and our bravery to combat them becomes stronger.

  22. Tina Fun

    Ai Wei Wei uses his life to express what he wants to tell his own country. You would think that with globalization, advanced technology, and lifestyle, the modern day China is a different country than it was decades ago. People would be surprised how similar the government operates now and then. Growing up in Taiwan, I’ve been able to be exposed to what’s happening in China without the censorship. It is shocking how little respect the government have to it’s people. Ai Wei Wei is praised like like a god for his bravery to stand against the government and really speak for the people. Without him, maybe of the younger generation grow up not knowing some of the bloody history of how scholars, artist, writers, poets, and more more fought to death for their rights. Without him, maybe people will overlook what really happened behind closed doors in the government official’s office.

    I think documentaries are one of the best art form to celebrate free speech and human rights because it’s truthful and it’s easy to digest. Visuals can be too abstract and words can be dry, but videos give you both: a narrative with visuals and words to guide you. I think as more and more people start to pick up Ai Wei Wei’s messages and be able to stand for themselves, there is a chance that human rights issues can be improved in China. But one Ai Wei Wei will not be enough, there will need to be more people like Ai Wei Wei that can have that fearless attitude to the world for a better future. Along with that, I think the rise of social media is also helping Ai Wei Wei carry his messages to the public and spreading it among the people that can start to make a difference.

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