Amidst the spate of documentaries I have seen this Summer in London, Klayman's docu-portrait of the dissident artist Ai Weiwei is far from being the most challenging exploration of the genre, but it may well end up being seen as the most significant. This is because the film offers a relatively unimpeded view of the man who is at the epicentre of China's ongoing revolution, which is in all likelihood the most significant political event of our generation. If by that one means, the thing that will have most influence in shaping the world we live in.
In the midst of China's revolution is a battle for what might termed 'democratic' values: freedom of speech, human rights etc. The bearlike Weiwei is at the centre of this battle and has personally gained and suffered from his actions. Although there is 'behind-the-scenes' footage of the artist with his family, this is by and large a portrait of the artist as agent-provocateur and public figure. Weiwei is someone who sees Twitter as the most important contemporary means of communication. At every given turn he confronts the state, making a nuisance of himself, challenging them to try and take him down. Which they seek to do, towards the end of the film. Something which sets the stage of Never Sorry 2, because in some ways it feels as though the full significance of his stand will only be revealed over the course of time.
We don't get to know that much about Weiwei as an artist or as a man, but then these are no longer the most important aspects of his persona. There is an anecdotal sequence which talks about Weiwei's time in New York, where he lived for about a decade, including the time of Tiannamen. It's fascinating to speculate to what extent artists such as Koons and Warhol impacted on Weiwei's evolving understanding of the concept of 'the artist'. Like Hirst, Weiwei no longer makes his own work. Other people do it for him, in what might be seen as a parody of the Chinese system or an embrace of Warholian neo-capitalism. However, the glimpses we see of his NY time and his present working practices only serve to highlight all that the film doesn't get round to saying or leaves out.
What we do get (with much of this footage culled from Weiwei's own films) is a vibrant insight into a society which, no matter how pervasive it's influence, is still one we know little about in 'the West'. Weiwei is revealed to be a lightning conductor, as are perhaps all the great artists, one whose art, life and politics are melded into a single, bearded whole.