Filmmaker Alison Klayman talks about her doc on Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei
When Alison Klayman began filming artist and activist Ai Weiwei for a short introduction to be included with one of his exhibitions, the filmmaker had no idea it would become the beginning of a feature documentary about the controversial Chinese figure. But after shooting the initial footage, she kept filming and 2012's Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry was the result. Exploring Ai Weiwei's embodiment of the fluidity between the roles of artist and activist, Klayman builds a profile of one of the most fascinating sculptors/painters/installation artists/filmmakers and political dissidents in recent global history.
In advance of Never Sorry's screening on Tuesday, March 11 in Boulder as part of the University of Colorado's International Film Series, Klayman spoke with Westword about meeting Ai Weiwei and how she filmed, edited, produced and directed a documentary about one section of his fascinating life.
Westword: Can you talk about how you met Ai Weiwei and how the documentary came to be?
Alison Klayman: I had already been living in China for two years -- I went over there when I graduated in 2006 from undergrad and I had no specific background in China or any reason to be going there, except a desire for adventure. My dream was always to do documentary film and freelance journalism. I spent some time getting to know the place through different kinds of jobs and worked on learning the language, so I was really well-positioned in 2008 when my roommate at the time was curating an exhibition of Ai Wei Wei's and asked if I wanted to make a video for the show.
I was certainly intrigued by Ai Wei Wei as an individual and I had so much footage of him -- I had shot about twenty hours of footage for this twenty-minute video and I really wanted to continue investigating him. That's how I saw it -- I wanted to figure out who he is and what was going to happen to him. As far as I was concerned, he was a great character for a feature film. I would be happy to watch him for ninety minutes, was my thought.
It's a good taster, but you could do so many movies and spend so much time looking at his work and thinking about Ai Weiwei, so if it is an entrée to more engagement, that's great.
The film ends with his arrest and disappearance at the hands of Chinese authorities, and then follows a very uncharacteristically quiet Ai Weiwei when he resurfaces a few months later. It's been a while since the movie was filmed, but have you been in contact with him?
The last time I saw him was probably November of 2013, obviously since the movie came out and even before it came out, but after his release from detention in June of 2011. He hasn't been able to leave China; the authorities continue to keep his passport. His situation has loosened in terms of his ability to freely meet people and move around in Beijing -- even in China he takes vacations and whatnot. But this fundamental thing, which for him it is really fundamental because he's an artist who is only able to exhibit his work abroad and is now actually in the highest demand probably of his life -- he's kind of cut off in that way. It's easy to visit him if you go to Beijing and we still keep our regular contact in terms of social media.
But going to see him in Beijing is really fun and I was happy to see him the last time I was there. His studio feels like it is running on full gear, it's back to having a lot of staff. He is, like I said, in high demand. His spirits were good in the sense that the pressure is off a little bit in terms of daily police kind of check-ins.
Of course, as you know Ai Weiwei from the film, he makes jokes, he likes to have a good time and he was super, super appreciative of the impact of the film. I think he still feels it every day. Even if you just check out Twitter, you can see everyday people from around the world saying that they got to know him through the film. I think that means even more to him because it the most contact he can have with the larger community.
I still think the prospect of when he's going to get his passport back, on that matter, he is quite pessimistic. The authorities really give him no indication of when his status will change. On that front, his spirits aren't so great. It's nice that I'm able to go see him and know that he still feels really grateful for the impact of the film.