What with the recent U.S. embassy standoff and flight to freedom of blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, you can't get much more timely than this documentary profile of the renowned artist, blogger, and fellow activist, who was incarcerated (and silenced thereafter) for several months last year. Those events conclude Alison Klayman's film, which follows Ai for over a year from his Beijing home to his studio to London and Germany for big museum shows. The access—and Ai's outspokenness on camera and via Twitter—are fairly remarkable, but he's really an equal partner with young journalist Klayman on this project. His own camera crew and staff constantly follow him, and he's made docs on controversial topics like the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (shoddy "tofu" school construction, government graft, 5,000 children killed)—footage he allows Klayman to use. It's generous, but also part of his own careful image management. An English speaker who spent a dozen years in New York City, Ai has to juggle art, commerce, global celebrity, politics, and a somewhat messy personal life (he has a child with a woman not his wife). He uses his fame shrewdly but not always cautiously: One of his fact-finding missions results in a police beating, which of course he films. Ai is puckish, funny, bold, and a thoroughly wired modern artist. As he says (before arrest) of the media, "If it's not publicized, it's like it never happened."
The artist's self-documentation is partly a form of insurance.
Opens Fri., Aug. 3 at Harvard Exit. Not rated. 91 minutes.