With a film as rich as Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, I develop high expectations for the filmmaker to be just as fulfilling — not just able to deeply discuss the themes, ethics, structural fascinations and other topics relevant to discussing their work, but also interesting and enjoyable to talk to overall. Alison Klayman did not disappoint, not even in my hope that she’d be familiar with the new Chinese documentary movement (look for a recommendation at the end of this interview).
Of course, she really knows the country and she knows her subject well, having spent the last half decade living in China and following Ai for much of that time. Her film, which follows the internationally renowned artist and activist from his Beijing Olympics protests four years ago to his detainment in 2011, deservedly won a special jury prize at Sundance “for spirit of defiance” and was a favorite of this year’s Human Rights Watch festival.
Last week I chatted with Klayman about the film’s broad appeal, it’s significance in terms of global awareness, the importance of documentary journalism in today’s news media culture, reflexivity and transparency, how to find an ending when you aren’t handed one, and how misfortunes can guiltily benefit your cause and your narrative. Read our whole conversation here:
You and this film are a terrific gateway to a number of things, including Ai Weiwei’s life and work, the issues he’s battling and commenting on and also Chinese documentary. Did you realize this project would be such an important cultural bridge and introduction?
I think I have always been aware, and it was sort of heightened once Weiwei was detained. That was something that raised the stakes for this project in so many ways, and I realized that this might be something that really needs to be — that it’s going to be — an introduction to a much broader audience. I feel like I was always committed to doing a highly honest job in terms of journalistic standards and all that. But in terms of imagining who it was for, it was just in the last year when I realized, wow, I have a big responsibility.
I went back and forth on how much I really needed to be explicit in introducing things. You could go in a direction where you have someone explain the Great Firewall or explain Chinese documentary. I’m really pleased that audiences pick up all these things without it being too explicit or without it being told to them through the film. I think that’s also the beauty of Ai Weiwei as a subject, that his life really does illuminate all of these things.
Why I’m really excited to work with the film, as well, is because in talking about it, it’s like concentric circles radiating out. It’s about Ai Weiwei in the specific, but then it’s about all the like-minded people and the diversity of opinion in China and all of these people who are using social media and using documentary to further these issues that they do care about. And it’s not because they’re a Western-influenced artist. There are big portions of the population that care about these issues, like rule of law and transparency and freedom of expression.
Then the fact that ultimately it’s about personal responsibility and personal courage and creativity, and that it doesn’t just end as a gaze on China without implicating ourselves. Weiwei’s example is so much about individuality and individual courage, that audiences can’t help think, “What should I be doing in my context? I need to stand up for something that I was afraid to say, because goddammit, look at the people in China doing it.”
This film is more entertaining than some others that stick to the issues, and part of that is the subject. Ai Weiwei is such an appealing personality that he must have made the project seem so easy at first, before that feeling of responsibility kicked in.
I didn’t know when I first met him or first started filming with him that it would be a movie about all of these things. The main thing I did know is you can’t go wrong with a movie about Ai Weiwei. People could enjoy spending time with him in a feature-length context. In the first few weeks he was already challenging and expanding the things I thought about China, and I’d been living there for two years. To have a movie about him would no doubt be something of significance and open people’s minds in some way or another. But even if it was just him talking about his philosophy on art and making breakfast, I thought that would be a pretty good movie.
This is very different than Chinese documentary, obviously, because it’s made for different audiences and different purpose. With much of documentary film in China, and certainly Ai Weiwei’s documentaries, there’s so much urgency. It’s like it’s evidence. We’re just trying to capture it and get it out. That’s what happens when you don’t have free press and freedom of expression and people are creating that space. The film is aimed at being a very watchable thing. Still important and honest, but watchable.
The film also deals, if not too directly, with the way in which media is changing and how the technology is revolutionizing awareness — say with Twitter — and how this culture is altering journalism. Documentary is good as an investigative or more comprehensive report. It’s not as immediate as TV news but it’s filling in where TV news has been failing.
The reason I came to China, why I wanted to go abroad in my aim, is that I wanted to do journalism, and maybe if I could ever do documentary film that was my outside dream. Documentary is when you get to do really, really good work, because you’re following a story for a really long time. And you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you don’t have a quick timeline, and you don’t have restrictions on the format. And obviously now, doing it, I wouldn’t define it as journalism-enhanced. But I do still feel there’s a strong connection. I did always see it as being that you bring your journalistic standards to the work, but this is when you actually get to really investigate truth. Because you have the time and space to be creative about it too.
I love the camera-on-camera stuff, where it’s kind of like a standoff between the government’s surveillance of Ai Weiwei and your or Ai Weiwei’s documentation of that. Were you present and shooting for most of these moments? And do you think it made a difference to have an American there filming?
Definitely that scene when it was happening on the street and at the restaurant and the cop is filming at us. There was so much going on in my mind at that moment. I think that’s why that scene is so perfect. It’s perfect comedic timing, when Zhao Zhao gets up and goes in his face, it just shows what happens when an intimidating gesture is not taken by the people it’s aimed at as intimidating. In the end [Weiwei] knows his movie is going to go online and be seen by people, and what’s that cop’s camera going to be used for in the end? Probably not for any effect. The biggest effect was trying to intimidate all of us sitting there.
Then you have the extra layer where the person who is making this movie is filming this happening and how many cameras are there. I’ve had friends who work as journalists in China who say that’s maybe their favorite footage to show contemporary China. On those trips to Chengdu, I was never the only camera but I was sometimes the only white person with a camera. And also holding a journalist accreditation. For me, I was very concerned that above all else the first standard for this project was to do no harm.
Every location we would arrive at, Weiwei and his lawyers would consult and say, “Okay maybe at this particular station you just stay in the car. And maybe don’t come out.” I just did whatever was decided. That instance where a fight broke out outside where he sees the officer and takes off his sunglasses? I was filming from the car, because it was one of the moments where they said, “Why don’t you stay in the car for this one, and if it’s important we can share footage.” The idea was that my presence could change it.
It’s weird, though, because the calculation of how it could change it was never really clear. I think it was sometimes a gamble in Weiwei’s head. Would my presence help? Or would my presence hurt? And it’s almost not clear. I could see how it would hurt, because there’s the assumption that this is a reporter so it’s going to go online immediately or be reported immediately, whereas I don’t think people fully understood that when Weiwei had his videographer that it was going to be for a documentary. I think oftentimes he would just say it was for his own record.
But with me, the assumption would come pretty fast that this is going to be reported. On the other hand, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s a bad thing. It’s really hard to tell. In any case we would often decide that I shouldn’t be there. In that scene we lucked out because we had two camera angles on this fight that broke out. It was kind of all happening in the moment with that.
Especially since this was your first feature, and you shot for so long, was it difficult to step away and find a structure and place to end?
In doing this project, I knew pretty early on that the movie was not going to end because Weiwei had reached “the end.” Because he’s always about something new, and something was always happening with him. I did figure at some point I would feel I had an excess of material and see that there was a movie in there. That would be essentially when I’d stop.
It was around the time of the Tate show opening or the summer of 2010 when I started to think that I have way more than I can fit in the movie and I know I have some really good scenes. I have the right interviews about his childhood and New York in the ‘90s. And I thought maybe the Tate can be an ending, not because the point of the movie would be a build up to the Tate Modern show, which is the biggest deal ever, but because it would be a grand installation and a big work, and it had to end somewhere. So that became the idea.
After the Tate, I was in New York and I started working with an editor, and she said, “So, do you have an outline for this?” “Uhhhh, an outline?” What I always knew, and what the movie continued to be both pre- and post-detention was what happened to him the past few years, with dips into his biography along the way. I knew in my mind certain scenes that I wanted to be in it, like the trip to Chengdu and his mom visiting. I had all these ideas, so we worked on trying to get that outline right.
But very quickly the Tate was no longer the ending. I think it was the ending for a few weeks until they announced they were going to demolish his Shanghai studio. I thought, that’s pretty big. He had the river crab party, and I thought all that stuff fit so well, and I went back to China and filmed more. Then we hunkered down and said we’re going to finish this movie and have a rough cut to show Weiwei when he came to New York in May.
And then April 3rd happened, and of course it was clear this needs to be in the movie. But we had no idea that there was going to be a day where he would be released anytime soon. It was so unclear the entire time what was going to happen. There was no certainty. Honestly, when people ask what was the most challenging or scary time of making the movie, that was 100% his detention. I was safe in New York, and it wasn’t my security to be concerned about, but I was just so scared. It was such a scary time.
For Ai Weiwei to go missing is certainly an awful situation, yet it does provide attention to him and the issues. Almost martyr-like. It also gives a documentary a major plot point and climax. What do you think of this issue of how misfortunes can aid in causes and in narratives?
It’s funny, because obviously when that happened there were plenty of people who said, “Wow, that’s a terrible thing, but it must be good for your movie.” It was really hard for me to ever think about it like that. I think I’m pretty aware that it’s a real person that it involves. More than that, I felt the whole purpose of this film was not to chase after these most dramatic, sensational parts. For better or worse, maybe this makes me not the best documentary filmmaker. I wanted to get the real story, and sometimes it was sensational, which in Ai Weiwei’s case it can be.
But Ai Weiwei’s story can be sensationalized so often in the media, and what I wanted to do was sort of in reaction to that, in answer to that. Let’s not put the label on him before we see what he’s actually like. Is he a dissident? Is he a prankster? Is he an activist? Let’s actually see who he is. That’s how my approach was. I didn’t have answers to anything before I started. I really did see it as a character portrait from the very beginning.
So for me, I thought it was the most fabulous tension of the whole thing, but it was a challenge in the edit. And I’m not saying his detention didn’t also help in certain ways in terms of how to convey the risk that he was facing. On the other hand, I thought it was really interesting to show that while he’s facing all these difficulties he’s also traveling the world and accomplishing so much and getting his message out through art, through interviews.
When [he was detained], I remember thinking, not “This is so great for the movie.” It was more like, “Ugh, China, you just really simplified the story in a lot of ways. You just went and did what everybody expected.” And maybe that ends up being more convenient and easier, but it wasn’t something I was wishing for. It’s really not in my control, and so it has to be in the movie. It didn’t happen to help the story, but in the end it does make it easier to read.
At the same time, I still felt very strongly that this is not a movie about a martyr. I would reject very strongly that characterization. I don’t think that’s the point of Ai Weiwei. That’s why it was such a shame when he was detained and out of contact for so long. He’s the opposite of a martyr. He’s supposed to be out there creating and putting things out there. His purpose should not be to sit in jail or to sit silently to bring attention to the cause. He thinks of a million and one creative ways to bring attention to these issues.
So that was why it was such a weird time, because all of a sudden for those 81 days this was a movie about someone without a voice, and I never ever thought of it as a movie like that. Fortunately he was released, and the truth is the structure of the movie didn’t really change very much. The endpoint kind of just kept moving backwards, as I’m sure must happen in many documentaries.
The other day you offered me a recommendation of your favorite of Ai Weiwei’s documentaries, which is Lao ma ti hua (Disturbing the Peace). Do you have any other favorite documentaries, either influential to this project or just something you’ve seen recently? Maybe some Chinese documentaries?
I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries since I’ve been working on this project, a lot from the new Chinese documentary movement. One of my favorites, which I couldn’t stop thinking about, is Disorder, by Huang Weikai. I think the reason that fits in is that when I try to think of documentaries I watched much earlier in my life that might have inspired me to be interested in the form, I always liked things where it ends and you don’t know what you’re supposed to think. And it’s not because the filmmaker didn’t do a good or thorough job, it’s because they did such a good job. The truth is not always direct and it’s not always clear what happened or what you’re supposed to think about it. I just f**king love Disorder. I definitely recommend it.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is now playing in New York, San Francisco and Washington, DC. To find out when it’s expanding to a city near you, check the film’s website.