Never Sorry paints compelling portrait of Ai Weiwei

Coming from anyone else, the phrase, “As an individual, you can be more powerful than a whole country,” would seem hopelessly naïve.

But for Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist, dissident, and the subject of the recent documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, this statement is not only obvious fact — it may as well be the motto for his life’s work.

Never Sorry, currently playing at the Harris Theater in Downtown, chronicles Ai’s life and work in protest against an oppressive political regime. Famed for his incendiary and often profane artistic voice, Ai frequently found himself at odds with the Chinese government — from publicly criticizing the 2008 Beijing Olympics to investigating the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Although it does not focus on Ai’s artistic ventures, Never Sorry perfectly balances political context with Ai’s rich personal story.

Created by first-time director Alison Klayman during her time as a freelance journalist in China, the film has won several international awards, including the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and Official Selection at the Berlin International Film Festival. According to the documentary website, the film aims to highlight a digital-age dissident who inspires on a global scale through a combination of art and politics.

Never Sorry slowly draws out Ai’s character over the course of the film. While the documentary centers primarily on his political work, the filmmakers also grant viewers insightful glimpses into the man behind the work, including a particularly poignant response to an interview question, a touching conversation with his mother, and a flash of defiance when he recounts his latest brush with the police. The result is a rich and compelling portrait of Ai: a humble yet stoic 55-year-old man, deeply burdened by his activism but duty-bound to continue it.

The disappointingly few artistic pieces featured in the film are powerful and fascinating: His 1997 work “Coca-Cola vase,” for example, features a Neolithic vase (over 3,000 years old) with a simple Coca-Cola logo painted across the front. Though certainly an act of defiance against the current Chinese establishment, this piece has important artistic merit, even when removed from the political context.

By defaming something so ancient and culturally sacred, Ai has raised a highly provocative and artistically valid question: Are some objects so sacred as to be untouchable? Or are all objects simply objects? Amid the more dominant political elements of the film, messages like these — which are also important to understanding Ai’s life and work — are often lost.

Although the film does not fully explore all aspects of Ai’s life and work, Never Sorry strikes a good balance between condemning the Chinese government and praising one of its dissidents. The film is far from pure propaganda, and yet throughout the documentary we are constantly reminded of the grave context surrounding Ai’s work. Amid this commentary, the filmmakers are also able to flesh out Ai’s fascinating and oftentimes elusive character. In this way, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is in equal parts a compelling portrait of a daring artist and a criticism of the oppressive circumstances that surround him.