For Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, the line between his public and his private life is thin. It's made very clear in the 90-minute documentary "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry."
When filmmaker Alison Klayman graduated from Brown University in 2006, she knew she wanted to be a journalist or a foreign correspondent. But her only experience was an internship at National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and some other radio work. So she went to China and began filming Ai at his home, a walled courtyard with 40 cats and dogs, and at his studio, where fellow artists help him create his masterpieces.
The result is a documentary that shows clearly why Ai has become such a thorn for the Chinese government.
"Who knew that a movie about an artist was going to have so many lawyers in it?" said Klayman. "And activists and filmmakers."
Ai has become an international superstar known for his art, but it is his activism that fuels his fame. He was invited by the Chinese government to help design the 2008 Beijing Olympics Bird's Nest Stadium. But then he rejected doing any publicity on China's behalf shortly before the Games.
He is known for provocative performance art, including dropping 1,000-year-old clay pots to the floor. But it is the photographs showing him giving the middle-finger salute to Tiananmen Square that challenge China's government.
His preoccupation with the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed 70,000 people, is another source of tension with the government. Struck by online videos of the dead, particularly the thousands of children who died in schools, he started a "citizen's investigation" to get the names of all the children whose dust- covered knapsacks he'd seen discarded in the rubble of the substandard buildings.
He sought volunteers on Twitter. They came back with lists of the dead, including birthdates and schools. One year later, he published all 5,121 names on his blog, and the lists, on paper, are a regular backdrop to scenes shot in his studio.
He revisited the theme again in a 2009 exhibit in Munich called "Remembering." He built a wall of knap- sacks whose colors spelled out a Chinese phrase sent to him by the mother of a victim "She lived happily on this Earth for 7 years."
A year later, he asked people to record themselves reading a name and send the file to him on Twitter. He published the audios again on the anniversary.
After the 2009 list was made public, the government shut down his blog.
He's turned to Twitter as his major means of communications.
"I'm mostly interested in communication. I couldn't think of a world without good communication," Ai says at one point in the documentary. "In the past two years I did about 10 to 15 documentaries. I put all those on Internet so that young people can see 'this clown, and what he's doing.' "
In 2011, Ai was arrested and disappeared for 81 days. Returning to his compound, he said he couldn't speak of what had happened under the terms of his probation.
That didn't stop him from soon returning to Twitter. The Chinese government levied a fine of $1.85 million on him for unpaid tax and fines. After he posted that on Twitter, citizens drove to his home and donated yuan.
Klayman sees Ai as more cautious now, partly because of his young son, Ai Lao, born to a girlfriend outside of his marriage, a circumstance he talks about openly, if somewhat embarrassedly, in the film.
He doesn't want the son to end up as leverage between him and China's government.
One question weighs on Ai: Could he be forced into exile?
Klayman says she thinks that would not be Ai's choice.
"I don't think he wants to be a citizen of anywhere but China, to be honest," she said. "I do still think that that's true, but what options the authorities present to him may result in some other choice having to be made. But I think if he had his choice, absolutely he wants to stay in China to do the work there, to be relevant there."
AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY
What: A documentary about Chinese digital-age dissident Ai Weiwei by first-time director Alison Klayman. This special screening for Verge Center of the Arts includes an introduction to the film by Verge artist-in-residence Jiayi Young.
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Crest Theatre, 1013 K St., Sacramento
Cost: $15 general admission, $12 seniors and students
Information: (916) 442-5189 or www.thecrest.com