The runner-up for Time Magazine’s 2011 “Person of the Year,” Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei was named by “ArtReview” as the most powerful artist in the world. Weiwei rose to international prominence after helping design the iconic Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium — and then publicly denounced the 2008 Olympic Games as party propaganda, in large part for their treatment of migrant labor forces. Since then, often at great personal risk, he has continued his criticism of the Chinese government, especially regarding their lack of transparency in the aftermath of the massive earthquake in Sichuan Province which left in particular so many children dead, because of shoddy school construction. In director Alison Klayman’s Sundance Festival-minted documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” audiences get a glimpse of his human rights passion, and the limits of free speech in China. For ShockYa, Brent Simon recently had a chance to speak to Klayman, about her movie and Weiwei’s affinity for flipping the bird. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: You graduated from Brown University with a degree in history, and produced radio and television feature stories for National Public Radio and “PBS Frontline” during your post-graduate years, living in China from 2006 to 2010. Was your journey to filmmaking a happy accident that centered around Ai Weiwei, or was directing something in which you were always interested?
Alison Klayman: For me, I think the ultimate end goal was to try my hand at doing a feature documentary. That was something that was in my head when I was thinking what I was going to do post-college. There [was the] idea of wanting to go abroad, and then I said, “If I’m somewhere where there’s another language I’d like to learn that language. And then I’d like to do journalism, and then if I’m ever lucky enough I’d like to try to do a documentary film.” For some reason, that just made sense to me. Obviously that doesn’t have to be the way that everyone comes to their interest, but I saw it as important to have the background knowledge of an area, and the skills and standards of a journalist. But you get so much more freedom with a documentary in terms of form, and you can really examine a story in much more depth, and take more time (than with journalism). I saw that as the pinnacle, and I met Ai Weiwei (pronounced “I Way-way”) at really a good moment. I didn’t meet him in my first month or year in China; the fact that I met him two years in was kind of just the right time.
ShockYa: For international audiences I think Weiwei became known in 2008 for speaking out against the Olympics. You were there before that, and afterward. Did you see a marked change in his notoriety within China?
AK: That’s a good question, to see the change within China — I think that what I saw over these two years was the quality of what he was known for change, but I don’t necessarily know if that translates to the quantity of fans that he had. If anything, because the time I spent with him [covered him] …being a mainstream blogger and being able to be covered in mainstream publications, becoming an icon for all of these universal values [of] freedom of expression and transparency and rule of law, and becoming this banner for a lot of human rights causes as well as an internationally recognized artist — that kind of shifted (the nature of) his significance within China. But I also think that put him on the chopping block in terms of being cut off from his domestic audience. He’s no longer able to be covered in mainstream newspapers for those kinds of activities, and (after a controversial arrest of tax charges) he was not able to have a micro-blogging presence at all. And that is a pretty surefire way to keep someone from being a mainstream figure or celebrity — to make it so that the newspapers and magazines of the masses never talk about him. You can’t find him on any websites within China, putting his words out. It’s really more of a shift of what his significance was, qualitatively. Quantitatively, if anything, he kind of went underground, in a way, at least for that domestic audience.
ShockYa: You touched on the fact that he’s so media-savvy, and makes his own films — documentaries that he’s made about the earthquake victims, and governmental cover-up. Was he readily accepting of being the subject of a film, and granting you that sort of access?
AK: The initial meeting (I had with him) was to film a video for a local gallery that was preparing an exhibition of his photographs. That was at the end of 2008, and the curator for that show happened to be my roommate. The show happened to be about his New York photographs, so it was also a great entry point, not being already an Ai Weiwei buff or fan, to think about him in New York in the 1980s (where he studied). That was a good entry point for a young American meeting him. So I had the distinct privilege or luck that the first meeting I had with him I already had my camera in hand. In the studio first thing in the morning, they said, “That’s Alison, and she’s going to make a video for the exhibition.” So I think it was lucky that there never was an initial meeting without a camera where I had to pitch myself or say what I wanted to do. I got to dive right in there, and the first few weeks of conversation were all on camera already before it became something bigger. But [I also] think there were a lot of factors for why he allowed it to continue. He eventually watched the video from that show and he liked it. So I came around and kept following up on things, the seeds (of which) were planted for during our time together in December but didn’t make it into that video – about the earthquake and his blog. I got a little bit more support for it, and it was sort of like he didn’t mind me coming around.
ShockYa: At times the film has a level of surreal comedy to it, because (when Weiwei is trailed by cops) there’s this filming of people filming other people filming other people, but you also have more traditional footage of him being interviewed by others. The movie in fact explicitly mentions the large number of interviews he gives. So for a figure who is so interviewed, how did you find him as an interview subject?
AK: That, for me, was a really big question, and really the driving force for what I was getting at for the first portion of this project — a character portrait of who this guy is, this media-savvy guy who’s putting a lot of his life online, with a company called Fake Design. What part of him is for the cameras? Is there a part that is genuine? Who is he, really? Is he hiding things? I think I was interested in those kinds of questions, and so in order to get at that, one of the methods was to see how he responded as an interviewee to all different kinds of interviewers, in all different kinds of circumstances, during all different kinds of moods. In the end that is a theme, because I think so many other themes and events in his life proved to be the more central of the story. But that as a theme is still there, in a much smaller way. Part of that is because ultimately I found his motivation to be pretty genuine. I approached him with skepticism in the beginning, when he’s answering these questions, talking about how he wants to be a voice for other people and how freedom of expression transcends. I felt like over time I saw that it was a really genuine commitment, and it wasn’t just to be cheeky or clever or get a headline.
ShockYa: (Weiwei has a son by a woman other than his wife.) Was his son something that you knew or learned about fairly early on, or was that a surprise to you as well?
AK: His son was born in February 2009, so a few months after we first met and started filming. It wasn’t like I found out later. I think I found out when he was born. I maybe didn’t know that there was a baby on the way, but I knew once he was born. It was something that was challenging to get on camera, because it took a while for Weiwei to agree.
ShockYa: Did he ever say explicitly, “I don’t want you to film X, Y or Z?”
AK: One of the areas that I think I had trouble with him was anything that had to do more with his family. That’s why I wanted to leave in that scene in the movie where a reporter asks to interview his mom and he engages in a clever deflection where he (suggests interviewing a random woman and just identifying her as his mother). [With regards to] filming him with his son – for a long time he said no, until he said yes. And for a while I thought I wasn’t going to get it on camera, which I was disappointed about. But not only did he allow for me to film with him in Beijing, but he brought his son to London. So there was a shift in him being more public, and bringing his son places. I felt like it was important because his son meant so much to him that as a part of the film, it would show a different side of him. The only other time when I was told not to shoot was if he was with someone and they were going to start to discuss business. Those were the only two things where he said explicitly not to shoot. Otherwise, the challenge wasn’t for me to get him to agree, but rather I had to know what was worth filming. Clearly, he had a lot going on in his life, a lot of projects, so what was happening in my camera was not high on his list of what he needed to think about. He might just decide to go on a very interesting trip … or this definitely happened, where he decided spontaneously to go down to the police station in Beijing. Him calling me and saying you should come? That would never happen. But as long as I knew to be somewhere or asked, the answer was invariably, “Yes, sure, come along.”
ShockYa: I think part of Weiwei’s appeal, especially internationally, is that he isn’t this figure of great intellectual remove. He has an affinity for… lowbrow humor, maybe? It has a certain sociopolitical heft, yes, but he certainly loves flashing the middle finger, which struck me often as a particularly New York-ish response to things.
AK: I feel like he’s never really trying to either underplay or overplay the significance of his time in New York. I think he would count that as not the defining part of his life, but one of the defining times where he learned a lot — that and his trials with his father. He is who he is because of his time in New York, but not just because of his time in New York. He’s also Chinese, and also very rooted in that political context, and a lot of his ideas and reactions I don’t want to ascribe to the West or his time in the United States. I see him as someone who is super-fluent in a variety of (modes of) communication. I think that is what his success is about, and his art is about — having ideas, sometimes overt and sometimes more mysterious, and trying to communicate those, whether in… art work or a cheeky photograph or an interview with the “New York Times.” So to say lowbrow humor is not totally the wrong characterization. That is one of the things that he utilizes very successfully, and that’s a big part of his appeal.
ShockYa: What are your memories and feelings about the film’s reception at Sundance — going there as a first-time filmmaker, and then receiving the Special Jury Prize?
AK: I wish I had the words to describe it. I was often without words at the time, and haven’t found them since. It was an incredible experience — not just as a filmmaker, but it was my time at a film festival period, so I had nothing to compare it to. I feel like it was just the right fit for a documentary premiere. It seemed like a place where we were able to shine, and definitely getting an award was unexpected. I couldn’t believe it. What is it that I want to say? A lot of people throughout kept saying, “Be in the moment,” but I felt like there was no possible way to be in the moment because I [couldn't] even fathom [that] moment. I enjoyed it, and definitely I think that it was a really great way for us to bring this film into the world. That felt like arriving, but when we open theatrically this next week that’s another (level of) arriving. It’s been a constant state of arriving, these past few months.
ShockYa: One prom after another.
AK: (laughs) Exactly, that’s exactly what it feels like, actually.
Written by: Brent Simon