Long before Ai Weiwei became an internationally renowned conceptual artist and a thorn in the side of government officials in his homeland of China who would prefer he stay off Twitter and Facebook, he enjoyed corned beef sandwiches at the Carnegie Deli in New York in the early ‘80s and took photographs of his neighborhood in the East Village where a host of artists including director Chen Kaige and composer Tan Dun were neighbors.
At the time, Ai was only slightly older than Alison Klayman was when she traveled to China in 2006, fresh from college and thinking of pursuing a career in journalism. It was in the apartment of her then-roommate Stephanie Tung, a curator at the Three Shadows Art Center in Beijing, that Klayman would learn of the artist through the 10,000 photographs taken during his formative years strewn about the floors and walls of their place in preparation for an exhibit at the gallery. So when Tung eventually asked Klayman if she wanted to make a video of Ai to accompany the exhibit, it would be through a different lens than the rest of the world get to know him in the years that followed, whether it was as one of the innovative minds behind the construction of the exquisite Bird’s Nest Stadium for the Beijing Olympic Games or an indomitable force to be reckoned with who sought to pull the curtain back on the nation’s corrupt practices.
During Klayman’s time in China, the man who specialized in creating symbols would become a symbol himself, a runner-up for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2011 when global acclaim for his work coincided with the rise of a social media to allow him to reach audiences beyond the art world, including Chinese authorities who destroyed his studio and placed him in detention for three months in an effort to silence him. But what emerges in “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” the riveting new documentary that resulted from Klayman’s four years of filming, is not just indisputable proof of the country’s adherence to a past of hiding its more unseemly aspects, but a glimpse of its complicated future as told through one man pushing for change.
However, with Ai himself equally complex in every facet of his life from his politics to his personal relationships, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” isn’t quite the facile David versus Goliath story it could be, instead engaging on a human level with its main subject to put a real face on all the other people Ai is fighting for, whether represented in his art as sunflower seeds, online as Twitter followers, or as names he seeks to memorialize in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in spite of government efforts to suppress their release.
While in Los Angeles on the eve of the film’s release, Klayman spoke to me about finding a different angle on the outspoken activist and artist, straddling the line of becoming a spokesman for him in the Western world and discovering censorship is hardly an issue limited to China.
When you’ve got somebody that’s so active on social media and outspoken about his own story and beliefs, did you ever worry, particularly since social media was such a new phenomenon, that you’d be rehashing a story that was already out there?
People have said to me, you have the open source documentary subject. It’s great because you can get so much material, but there’s definitely the flip side. More so than even worrying about what the movie was about, my main concern was always about the quality and variety of what I was getting and to be aware [that] there has to be a reason this movie is making a contribution. It’s not just rehashing what Weiwei himself does. So there are certain scenes where the point of it is to notice how many cameras there are in the room and that Weiwei is sharing this online right away. But then there are other scenes where [it’s showing] what am I getting that no other camera, not even Weiwei, is interested in putting out there.
But beyond that, except for those kind of quiet, private moments with his family, most of the content of this film is in the public record in one way or another. But that’s where a filmmaker’s role comes in. You would have to be really obsessed with Ai Weiwei to have known everything in this film that is in the public record. And putting it together, you do get to put in the filmmaker ingredients and [have] impact on the material. But I have also had people who worked for Weiwei during the time I was filming or one of his gallerists, who has worked with him for 16 years, who saw the film and said, “There was stuff in there I didn’t know.” He has so many parts of his life that very few people are both going out with him to Chengdu and going to the Tate Modern [in London] and going out with him to his mom — it’s a lot to cover. He shares his life with so many people. I felt like the film needed to have that bird’s eye view of everything.
Being one of the hordes of camera people around, has it changed your view of the media when you see something you’ve experienced firsthand through literally hundreds of different lenses?
I just think there’s limitation inherent in what the media’s able to do and it often involves a lot of simplification. I do that work too, so that’s why I know it and that’s why I think for me there’s this holy grail idea of a documentary. What I found in the end is that 90 minutes [the length of “Never Sorry”], when you’ve shot hundreds of hours, there’s even more that you wanted to share. The real challenge, like in any story, is deciding what is the most essential 90 minutes? If this is the only 90 minutes you’re going to see, what do I want to share with you? And it’s the same with media, except it’s two minutes for a radio piece or it’s 600 words for a quick news story. Then foreign correspondence is also really interesting because you’re writing about one context for people in a different context and so much of this space is taken up by just filling them in on who these people are and what this situation is. You don’t always get to more of the details. I really saw this as the opportunity to get those enriching details.
In general, how did you get interested in filmmaking?
It’s funny because I feel like I always was interested in journalism and I saw documentary in a way…I’m still trying to decide how much I feel like this still holds true, but as the best form of journalism that you can do in terms of again really taking your time with a story. [There’s other reasons], but I grew up in a house where the news was always on, there’s always a newspaper at the table like really interested in current events. I always wanted to have those adventures and telling those stories as well.
Because of this film, you’re in a unique position where media outlets have come to you as an expert on Ai Weiwei, particularly in the West, but have you felt comfortable or uncomfortable with speaking on his behalf to some extent when your job as a filmmaker is to be objective?
I’ve had a lot of time to figure out how I want to be in that role. I feel like I was thrust into that so much earlier than I ever would’ve wanted to because during [Ai Weiwei’s] detention, it was like, okay, there was nobody else really who would talk about him because people in Beijing were not safe or comfortable doing it. His studio decided they weren’t giving interviews. There was some of his family, [but] it kind of fell to like, “Okay, Alison’s in New York, she’s able to do it.” I felt like it was really important, but I was very uncomfortable being the one who was on the other side of the microphone making statements. Also, I was still processing all the material and knowing that you’re talking about someone who is being held in detention with all kinds of charges being flown around, you don’t ever want to say anything that’s going to put anything in a bad light and you don’t know where those lines are.
What I really like talking about is my role in it too and the idea that it makes a lot of people [think], wow, I want to go abroad. So I encourage people to not say I have this big plan – just the idea that if you take risks and you’re motivated — and you’re cautious about things — you can make something. I feel comfortable talking about that and I’ve slowly found what I feel comfortable talking about him. But it is unusual because would you suddenly want to be going around talking [for one of the subjects in your articles]?
No, and to be thrust into that role involuntarily, it must be weird, not to mention difficult considering the possible ramifications on legal matters in this case.
Yeah, it is totally weird. It [also] gives me so much sympathy for what Weiwei has dealt with for all these years too.
Speaking of growing comfortable with something, since Ai Weiwei’s unofficial symbol has been flipping off symbols of authority, you’ve made a tradition of encouraging audiences give the finger to the camera as you take a picture and it’s become part of the film’s marketing as well. Has that been fun?
I definitely enjoy that, although as it’s gone on, I sometimes feel bad too, like are people going to be offended that I’m offering them the chance to do this? You can [also] imagine a lot of times when people ask to take pictures with me, they’re like, “Can we do this?” [flashing an extended middle finger]
That whole issue [also cropped up] last fall when The Guardian published these photos of Weiwei naked with some Twitter fans. I put them on our Facebook page and we made a photo album — our Facebook page was pretty nascent at that point — and the photo album was called “Nudity is Not Pornography.” I got entangled with this whole sort of censorship thing with Facebook where they kept sending me warnings to take them down and then they started actually taking them down.
My boyfriend and I — he’s also a contributing producer on the project — [were] in our house one morning, we doctored the photos so that we covered up all the sensitive parts, but we put Facebook logos over them. We got so many likes from that. Then about a day or two later, my personal Facebook account was shut down. Again, it wasn’t the film’s account and I’m not sure why they didn’t take down the film’s account – maybe it was because there were multiple administrators, I’m not really sure. But it was mine and it was without warning, so I immediately went onto Twitter. Maybe [I was] a little bit provocative, but I was like you know, “Facebook Censors Guardian Photos” and “Ai Weiwei filmmaker’s account just got shut down” and I really got a lot of responses, including from the Guardian correspondent in Beijing, who [said] “I’m going to write to Facebook and ask them about this.” I also put it up on HuffPost, so you can see the pictures too. After a couple hours, magically, my Facebook account was reinstated. That was all right before Thanksgiving because I went to see my family and my uncle’s like, “Oh, the family pornographer is here!”
“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” opens on July 27th in New York at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema, in San Francisco at the Embarcadero Center and the Kabuki 9 and in Bethesda at the Bethesda Row and the E Street in Washington D.C. It will subsequently expand into limited release on August 3rd. A full list of theaters is here.