Alison Klayman’s Never Sorry showed at Harvard Exit, to a good audience. My introductory remarks focused on what I expected to find in the film (as I’d not yet seen it) and what I expected would not be in the film. My expectations proved to be more or less on the mark in the following ways. The film was long on Ai heroics, and short on more subtle view of Ai’s relationship to his social and political context. The bravery of his (artistic) political stunts and his commitment to the people compellingly portrayed by, among others, Hung Huang, a media mogul who is a fascinating subject in her own right. But what really happens behind the scenes, and more nuanced view of Ai’s work in a global context (which is to say a somewhat more thorough appreciation of the documentary mode itself) is notably absent. Ai emerges as a kind of monumental structure, but the building blocks of that structure disappear in the process. Indeed, it is the interest value of many of the “supporting cast” (one of my favorites being He Yunchang, about whom a documentary really should be made) that I find often exceeding the primary “subject” of Klayman’s documentary.
In any event, I found the most compelling moments of the Ai story to be short conversations about his son, born to a girlfriend (Wang Fen) rather than to his wife (Lu Qing). One element of good documentary filmmaking is to capture those moments when subjects are that wonderful blend of willingness to divulge information and fear of doing the same, and Ai is a beautiful study of ambivalence on this subject. Klayman’s ability to disarm his is both surprising and in and of itself worth the price of admission.
I must also confess that one impact of seeing the film on me, in contrast to what purports to be something of an attempt to galvanize efforts at effecting political change in China (how that is supposed to occur I’m not sure, but perhaps I’m a bit dense), has been to increase my concern for Ai’s safety. After all, in addition to all those adoring “associates” both near and far (a seemingly perpetually tearful mother Gao Ying, for instance), he now has a young son whose life would no doubt be better with a father than without one.