08/16/2012 01:35 pm ET Updated Oct 16, 2012


@aiww is the Twitter handle of Ai Weiwei, an extraordinary Chinese artist/activist. Through it he has become an international figure and, with the help of other forms of social media, he has painted a more complex portrait of China than the one trumpeted as an example for America by some politicians or condemned as a revanchist Communist state by others. A new documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, about his life is playing at my local theater and I saw it yesterday.

It is riveting, as is Ai Weiwei. A shambling Buddha-like figure of a man, he seems a bit of a charlatan when we first are introduced to his art but then becomes much more as we learn of his moral courage in fighting the state. 'The State.' It could be any of a number of states as most 'states' wish for utter control. Using ideology or religion to enforce compliance, to foster a sick moral suasion of conformity, enforced with violence as always, but, now, on a world stage made immediate by Twitter, Facebook, and viral videos.

The documentary shambles about a bit like its title character. Is he really a great artist or merely a great self-promoter? Do Western audiences flock to his shows because of his cause célèbre status or because his art says something universal? In Never Sorry, exhibition organizers gush in their normal silly manner, part ticket sellers, part of the great uber intelligentsia that decree a Campbell soup can on canvas is worth millions. We learn that Ai Weiwei doesn't really 'do' art any more but has assistants assemble things that others declare as 'art.' But, just as he slides toward caricature, the Sichuan earthquake happens in the middle of China. I remember reading about it, seeing a 5.30 news clip showing devastation and people numbly walking about, something about shoddy construction and pan caked schools, dead children, and then the news cycle moved on.

The Chinese government hoped for the same. It sealed off the area as only a totalitarian government can, downplayed the death toll and hoped things would indeed move on. And, perhaps that might have happened but for Ai Weiwei.

He brings his artist's sensitivity to Sichuan. He picks at the scab of political and international indifference to the tragedy. The world moves so quickly from suicide bombings to mass shootings to floods to earthquakes to fires... as in Stalin's famous observation: a few deaths are a tragedy, a million a statistic.

Not true, for Ai Weiwei and in the new world of social media.

In a country where the government can by decree, decree a one-child policy, the results of that policy became particularly cruel when a classroom was flattened in Sichuan. Every child killed by the earthquake killed a family. Each child represented the totality of the parent's future. Thousands of children were killed, and the government wanted them to be but a dismissible statistic, not a little pigtailed girl sitting proudly on a new bicycle, or an almost teenaged boy kicking a birthday soccer ball.

Never Sorry becomes a documentary within a documentary as Ai Weiwei and his followers drive to Sichuan and begin documenting the devastation. In the face of government disapproval and threats he and his team begin a new art project fueled by social media: They are going to name each one of the thousands of dead children on a website open to all.

An entire wall of his studio is taken up by the names of the dead. The dates devastate: 9 years old, 7 years old. He interviews the parents, the grandparents, he risks all for the truth.

Another visit, and he is assaulted by the police. Live on camera, the assault broadcast around the world through Facebook. Twittered in real-time.

Later, at an exhibition opening in Germany, he is rushed to the hospital, the blow to the head much more serious than thought. He puts the surgery, the stiches, the scar, his near death experience online. Millions follow it. Millions become aware of Ai Weiwei, his art, what the Chinese government is really all about, Sichuan, why so many are worried about increased government power, why America, it's Bill of Rights, it's rule of law, is so vitally important as an example to the world.

The activist Ai Weiwei becomes synonymous with the artist Ai Weiwei. He is the Vaclav Havel of China. The authorities don't know what to do about him. But, just as you begin to revere him, life intrudes: a son by another woman, callousness toward his wife and her pain.

No life is simple. No man or woman complete as in fiction. It's a messy, inchoate, beautiful, maddening, wonderment.

The director makes some great choices in presenting a snapshot of a life, but she also makes cloying choices. He plays with his child, but says nothing to the mother of that child. He plays with the media and the director sighs in admiration.

The viewer gives her a break; she is dealing with a fascinating man, living a fast-moving life despite his placid Buddha-like exterior. We find out that he lived for years in New York City. That his father was a famous poet, tortured by the Kuomintang in the '30s, beaten and humiliated by Mao in the '70s. He has a doting mother. A loyal wife. Devoted followers.

Then he is arrested by the authorities. Whisked away by a modern-day Gestapo. He disappears.

We wonder. The world wonders.

He is dropped off at his studio at night, weeks later. Seemingly cowed, head down, surrounded by the foreign press shouting questions as to what happened, would he still be a beacon of individual freedom in a country where individuals mean little?

He closes the door to the compound and is gone.

Then, later, @aiww begins Tweeting again.

It's a great documentary, a great story, a complicated portrait of courage, venality, talent, and personality.

A life.