Four years ago China dazzled the world with its Olympics opening ceremony, held in the futuristic Beijing National Stadium. The artistic consultant on the project, Ai Weiwei, is perhaps better known in the years since for his outspoken stance on human rights and corruption in his country, leading to his arrest for two months last year. A new documentary, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” opens today in limited release, after winning the Special Jury Prize at Sundance. The film captures his challenge to the Chinese system as well as his arrest and release, a rare critical voice in a country that is anxious to stifle dissent. A surprise is that the project is the debut documentary from Alison Klayman, who first met Ai Weiwei while working as a freelance journalist.
“This is not a movie about someone without a voice, and I am giving that person a platform,” Klayman says. “This is a movie about someone who very much has a voice and it is a very inspirational voice. It is taking an independent look at him and allowing people to get to know gim, which then became a lot more dramatic.”
I spoke to Klayman last week about the hurdles she had not only in setting out on her first feature documentary project, but in a country so determined to control its image as it continues to emerge on the world stage.
You were a first time filmmaker with you first met Ai Weiwei. How did you get his trust?
KLAYMAN: The side of why he ultimately trusted me is probably best answered by him, but the way I have always understood my great fortune in having really good access for this incredible story is definitely by the dumb luck. My roommate was curating an exhibition for a local gallery in Beijing of Ai Weiwei’s work, and she asked me if I would make a video of that exhibtion for that gallery. I just did it for fun, not even for money, it just seemed like a cool thing to do. I met Ai Weiwei when he came over with the gallery team one morning in December 2008, and I was always filming with a camera in hand and he walked in and they said, that’s Alison, she is going to make a video for the show. There was never the point when I pitched him the idea or when I said ‘Here’s my plan for this project,’ which I actually think would be a pretty tough sell, especially to Ai Weiwei. So the way we got to know each other was when I was filming, asking him questions or just being present when he was talking to other people. So when I wanted to continue and I followed up in my capacity as a journalist and because I wanted to film more. He just let it keep happening, he didn’t object.
You never said, ‘I am making a documentary about you.’
KLAYMAN: That exhibtion were photographs from the decade he lived in New York, which was a pretty special show. I used to joke it was his Facebook page, from the decade of 1983 to 93. It was photos of his life but it happened to be pretty interesting. It was was Allen Ginsburg and ACT UP protests and every famous Chinese cultural figure of today back in the 80s, when they were sort of bohemian, sort of couch surfers or whatever it was. It was a really special topic of inquiry as well because it was so personal. I don’t think the irony was lost on either of us that it was me and my roommate, who is a Chinese American, and we are both sort of young women in our 20s, living in China, talking to him about when he was a young man living in New York. It was really a special way to get to know each other. He saw the video and was really impressed by it or really pleased by it. …It was just kind of these different things and slowly became what it was. One day in the fall of 2009, I overhead him on the wireless mic, he was in the kitchen area and he was talking to a friend who asked him, ‘Who’s that?.’ And he said, that’s Allison, she has been filming me for a long time. She is making a documenrtary. And I was like, awesome. It was after that time when I said we agreed he would get to see it before it came out. … But we had no idea in our minds that it could be what it is now.
Where were you when he was arrested?
KLAYMAN: That was the most terrifying time of working on this film, even though I was in my apartment on the upper west side of New York. I certainly wasnt worried for myself, but it was so scary, it was a risk, that we always knew was there but never expected was around the corner. It was also not clear at all what the outcome would be and that he would be released after 81 days. We didnt know if he would have subversion charges leveled against him, which would inevitably carry years in jail. And we didnt know where he was. For me, I found out late at night in New York and basically stayed up until five or six a.m. on Skype in the studio, and was retweeting good information and translating good information. …I think I went to bed … with the comopueer on and Skype open next to me. I was also called upon to do a fair amount of interviews in the states, including on “The Colbert Report,” which for me all of that was terrifying. I was not used to speaking about this project. It was not done, and I was also not used to speaking about Ai Weiwei as a person I needed to speak out for. I really thought of it as lucky that I had the best PR training in the world, which was watching Ai Weiwei for like 2 1/2 years.
Did you go back to China after that?
KLAYMAN: I did. After he was released I talked to him on the phone the night he got home. I came in September after he was released June 22, and was also able to go over with him the film, because we wanted to make sure he saw it before it premiered, not only because he was going to view it anyway, but also to know if we were OK, was it safe? I was able to go back [to China] and I didnt have any problems, which is amazing.
One of the most dramatic parts of the movie is when he is released and returns home. The media is camped out at his place, but he is a different person. This outspoken figure is now silenced and can’t say anything. What was your reaction?
KLAYMAN: As soon as I saw that, the whole week I was just watching it over and over again. I had dropped it in a very rough version of what our ending still is. It made my heart sink every time when he closes the door. It just felt like you see it on his face, and it was such a stark contrast from everything else in the film. When Weiwei saw the ending, he was very shocked by that footage, he was very struck and did not recognize himself. It was a very scary kind of image.
Does he speak out with the same ease that he did before his arrest?
KLAYMAN: Off the record as an individual, if you showed up at his studio, he would tell you everything. He would not pull any punches. If he was in a good mood, maybe he would say it on the record. What I see is a person who has not changed at all with his convictions. But he is in a tough potision. The truth is he is not safe and he is not superhuman. He is unable to calculate how to walk that fine line, which he was so good at doing before this detention. Now those lines have moved, or they do not exist and it is all under this cloud of uncertainty. So it is hard for him to figure out, as he put it, how to play the game.
Did you yourself run into problems with Chinsese authorities?
KLAYMAN: That is one of the subtexts that runs throughout the film. A lot of viewers are perceptive enough that this film was made, that ‘this scene was shot in the police station. this scene was shot of him taking off the guy’s sunglasses [in protest].’ In large part, I did not face routine difficulties at all in filming at his studio in Beijing. I was never questioned in my capacity as a journalist as to why I was coming and going from Ai Weiwei’s place, probably because at the time I was not seen as an important journalist. But the times where it was very tense and scary were the times … where the entrie purpose was to confront authorities or to file complaints or to request an investigation or a lawsuit. Every morning we woke up and felt, OK, how is it going to go? I where they took a tape or pulled me aside and forced me to delete my footage. But through good filmmaking techniques of constantly changing your tapes, I didn’t really lose any footage. In the end, nothing was lost.