In 2008, Alison Klayman was a recent college graduate living in China who agreed to help her friend make a short video accompanying a photo exhibition. Four years later, that short video has flourished into a full-length feature, documenting the work of one of the most prolific, controversial, and internationally known artists today. Her documentary film debt, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry blends the world of art and journalism as she gives the world a close look at Chinese artist/journalism/activist, Ai Weiwei. We chatted with Klayman about getting up close with Ai Weiwei, the limits of filming her subject, and what she hopes the audience gains from the film.
This is your first feature. How has it been promoting the film and seeing everyone’s reaction to it?
First of all, it’s definitely been as much a learning experience as any other part of making this film in the sense that I had no idea this whole stage in the process of distribution existed. I wish I could forget it right now so that the next time I make a film, I’m not thinking about this part of it; it was really nice that I had no idea. It’s a total privilege and thrill to be bringing the movie around and to share Ai Weiwei’s story. The real take-away for audiences is really to be inspired and to feel challenged about what, personally, should they do with their voice and what should they risk. There are some difficult things in this film, but I think ultimately the response is optimistic. Art and the internet really are powerful tools for our time, and if Weiwei can do what he does in China, what should I be doing? I think that’s very cool.
Your background was in journalism. Did you know you wanted to crossover into documentary films?
I was always interested in doing documentary films. When I graduated college in 2006, I did a lot of radio journalism, interned at NPR, and worked as a news anchor and produced different shows. I did a student short documentary in college, but I had never studied anything like that. And so my plan for how I was going to achieve all this started with going abroad. I ended up going to China after I graduated because my friend, who I did the student film with, had family in Shanghai. She was going and graciously allowed me to tag along.
So your choice to go there had nothing to do with politics initially?
I find it funny because it’s important to be totally honest about how this happened. I always say—not to make it sound like I had no clue about anything, but it’s more like having an open attitude—the truth is, if she had family from somewhere else, I might have ended up tagging along with her on a trip to, like, Latvia, but would I have stayed for four years and made a documentary? I don’t know. It was an incredible choice of a place to go. But I can’t take credit for thinking, China is the future so I should go there. I spent the whole summer reading a million books about China and I remember thinking if I could ever know this place well enough to contribute something to what’s out there in terms of reporting and books. But how does anybody do that? I remember that feeling. You just start by learning the language, having adventures, and seeing what the place is about.
How did you meet Ai Weiwei?
Again by a fantastic stroke of luck. My roommate, with whom I lived in Beijing in 2008, was curating an exhibition of his photographs for the gallery that she worked for. It was actually his photographs from the decade he lived in New York in the 1980s, which was as much a sort of historical archival task as it was an art curation. There were 10,000 photographs from this period in his life and she’d bring her work home with her and tell me about him and I would look through all the images and see all the protest images, Chinese artists hanging out, doing laundry, making art. It was incredibly captivating, and that body of work really helped so many more people understand him. Toward the end of the year my roommate said it would be really great to have a video to accompany the show and see how these photos were taken and to give a little more background. I had just bought a camera and she was like, Would you like to do the video? I had to go with the gallery team one morning to Weiwei’s studio and was introduced as the person who was making the video, so I was just kind of given this opportunity to not only meet him but also the license to be filming him. I never had to pitch myself or convince him. And he did like it, so I’m sure that did play some role in why he let me continue on.
What was your initial impression of him when you first met? Was he as you expected?
My initial impression was that he has a very commanding presence. I’ve worked on movie sets with Jackie Chan and Jet Lee and some famous Chinese actresses, and I found something not too dissimilar in terms that he’s sort of a big deal and has an entourage, but obviously it was in a very different context. I also saw that he has a really great sense of humor and likes to keep things, when he can, light and keep people at ease and himself entertained. At the same time, I was forewarned and I could see how it was possible if he didn’t like, for example, an interviewer that came along; he could be very intimidating and make an interviewer cry if he wanted to. I didn’t have an agenda in the questions I asked, and I genuinely didn’t know what the answer was to, like, “How are you so fearless? Why do you do the things you do?” We did get along really well.
How did you decide to make it a full feature?
Those initial couple weeks that I was filming for the purpose of this gallery show, we were covering so many things that didn’t fit into that assignment and talking about censorship in his blog and the ills of contemporary China. I remember talking to my parents and trying to explain this guy and saying I have all this material that I’m not going to get to use and I hope I get to use it. I started to film more of his art, and I wanted to get those kind of personal family moments.
Was he open to letting you into his world?
I feel like I took cues from him that it was okay to keep going. The idea that I was really doing a feature film was almost acknowledged it first because he introduced me to someone as, “Oh that’s Alison, she’s making a documentary about me, she’s been filming for a long time.” After he did that I was like, “We can have that conversation—so I’m making a documentary, what expectations do you have?” Maybe there are instances where people make a documentary film where the subject isn’t doing a million interviews a day and directing their own camera crews and so they’re focused a little more on what the documentary filmmaker is doing with them. For me, it was nice; he really just let me show up, he wasn’t micromanaging what I was doing ever, and if I suddenly never showed up, he’d just be like, I wonder what happened to that girl? I think we had very little expectations for what the project was going to end up being. I talked to him on the phone two weeks ago and he was just, I think, marveling at how big this has gotten because it certainly was not what we expected. I know he wasn’t letting me be around because he thought this film is going to reach a lot of people—he already does so many things that reach so many people, so he wasn’t looking for an outlet. I think he really was just gracious enough to let me be around.
Did he ever ask you to stop filming?
It took me a long time to where he would let me film him with his son. I thought I would have to do the same thing to his mom, but I lucked out and she came to the house one day when I was there. I thought that might be something that I had to fight for; I got to meet her and, as soon as she was standing by herself, I ran over and started asking her questions because I wasn’t sure if he would then tell me later [not to]. The only time I can remember him saying [not to film] was if he was talking with someone about. So he was also aware that not everyone needs to be filmed all the time.
You did a really great job of being informative and telling his story, but there was a lot of heart to it and it was entertaining to watch. What did you gain the most out of meeting him and the whole process?
I definitely feel like I’ve been given solid proof of the power of art and cultural production to really have an impact of people’s ideas and outlook on life. I’ve been thinking about other artists, entertainers, comedians who are helping to try and push things forward and show a different view on the world and articulate that in an entertaining way. There’s one thing he told me that always stuck with me; he once told me a story about an instance where one of his videographers was in a situation where the police were stopping him from filming, and Weiwei asked, “When things were happening, did you take your camera out, did you get any footage?” And the guy said, “No, I was really worried that they were going to take the camera so I didn’t take it out.” And Weiwei said, “Well when that happens, it’s as if they already took it, if you’re not going to try, it’s like they already took your camera in the first place.” I feel like, for me, as someone who wants to do journalism and documentary film, that’s the ultimate lesson. If you don’t speak out because you’re afraid of something happening to you, then they’ve already silenced you.