Q&A: Alison Klayman Discusses Her New Film About Artist Ai Weiwei

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Filmmaker Alison Klayman says her time with Ai Weiwei gave her a new appreciation for free speech. Photo courtesy of Never Sorry LLC. A Sundance Selects release.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a new documentary film that seeks to capture the many sides of the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, from his artistic practice and family life to his web presence and run-ins with censorship and the Chinese government. Now on view at Atlanta’s Tara Cinema, it’s the first feature-length documentary of 28-year-old journalist Alison Klayman. BURNAWAY had the chance to talk with Klayman recently and ask about the making of the film.

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BURNAWAY: What was the original impetus for making the film? What led you to choose Ai as a subject?

Alison Klayman: It was a unique case for me. Meeting Ai Weiwei was what made me feel very strongly that he was an important subject and a great character for a documentary. I went to China after I finished college in 2006, because I had this dream of doing journalism and documentary film. The way that I decided to get on that path was to go abroad. I went to China with a friend, because she had some family there. A couple months turned into four-year stay. I met Ai Weiwei in 2008, because my roommate was curating an exhibition of his for a gallery in Beijing. She thought it would be a nice idea to have a video to accompany the show, and she asked if I wanted to make it. I began filming with Ai Weiwei the day I met him in December of 2008. It was immediately clear that there was a lot to know about him, that there were things we were talking about that weren’t going to fit in that initial project. His personality was such a force that I really felt I wanted to know more about him and to spend more time with him, so I was pretty sure an audience would enjoy it as well.

How did you approach him with the idea of a full-length documentary?

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It just kind of evolved. From day one, our relationship was always, “Allison has a camera.” There was never a transition. It was already my role. I just kept coming around with a camera, even after the gallery film was done, until he introduced me one day to someone else as, “Oh, that’s Allison. She’s going to do a documentary about me.”

One of the many things that comes across about Ai in the documentary is just how incredibly busy he is. A lot of the time you were filming him, he was being interviewed by other journalists or filmed by other cameras. There were so many other people who were curious about him and his work. Was that a challenge in making the film?

It was definitely challenging, but in a way that forced me to respond to it. For one, it made it clear to me from the very beginning: I never saw this as “telling the untold story.” This is someone who is covered a lot, has his own voice that he uses to great effect. He’s communicating in so many different ways. I saw my role as to tell this in the most in-depth, sensitive, complex, independent way. I defined my project very much in reference to all the other coverage that was going on. I saw a feature documentary as a chance to show his personality and as a chance for people to get to know him [in a way] that they may not get from a short TV piece. It never bothered me. It was a great opportunity. I got to see him answer the same questions ten times to ten different people. I felt that I had a better grasp of where, in all of that, the reality might be, much better than if I just asked him a question once and then moved on. I kind of just viewed it as: they were all coming in to my movie. I felt like it was something I had to show in the film because it really is what his life is.

Ai Weiwei in a scene from Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Photo courtesy of Never Sorry LLC. A Sundance Selects release.

Did you get to sit with him and watch the film?

We showed him the film before Sundance when we had enough time to make any changes in case there were any safety concerns. He didn’t ask to change a single thing. He was really quite taken with the editing and the story-telling and how much we fit in to the documentary. He felt it was a very accurate depiction of what he’s been trying to do the past few years. He has a copy at his studio that he’s been showing to people, so I feel that’s a pretty good vote of confidence.

Ai’s art and activism and your journalism and documentary filmmaking are obviously very different practices, but do you feel that you learned things from him that you’re going to apply to your practice?

Absolutely. People get inspired by watching the film, so you can imagine there’s a lot I took away in documenting and putting it together. I have a much richer understanding of the importance of transparency, freedom of expression, rule of law, the dignity of individual life, the power of social media. Who wouldn’t say those things are important, but I’ve had a couple years of observing them firsthand, and when I started to put the film together, that’s when I really started to appreciate what he was talking about. I didn’t really think about it as I was filming. I was more concerned about getting enough material and taking it all in. During the editing process and in articulating it to other people, I really started to understand. Another personal lesson I took away is something he said about documentation. When the police were interfering with one of his camera people, Ai said, “Did you film it?” And his assistant said, “No, I was nervous that they were going to take the camera away, so I didn’t turn it on. I didn’t take it out.” And Ai said, “Then it’s as if they already took the camera from you.” That has definitely stuck with me for a long time. Sure, it makes plenty of sense not to turn on your camera, because you’re afraid they’re going to take it away. But to have the courage to document something is that initial first step. Yes, they can take it from you, but you have to make that initial choice to try. One of the things I learned in China is how much censorship in China starts as self-censorship. You have the power in that first step. When you think about it that way, it’s a very empowering thought. That decision is entirely yours.

Ai Weiwei in his home. Photo by Ted Alcorn. A Sundance Selects release.

Ai seems so brave in the film, such a hero and so admirable in so many ways. Were there aspects of him that you found in filming and following him that you didn’t find so admirable?

For me, it was really important to show him as a human. The film shows a tricky personal life and times when he’s having a bad day and snaps at someone. It does happen, because he’s human. I think it’s really important to keep it at a ground level. For me that’s more inspiring: to think that someone is just a person like anyone else, and they’re making these choices. He’s just like anyone else and can have a bad day and a short temper.

What’s next for you?

I’m really excited to embark on a career as a filmmaker now that this first one has come out of the gate and done well. I don’t know which project will emerge as the next one, but I’m developing some other film projects but still doing a lot of work with this one. We’ve been very lucky, because it’s being picked up all over the world. We’re getting a great release here in the US, so right now my life is continuing to get the film out.

The film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is now on view at Atlanta’s Tara Cinema, 2345 Cheshire Bridge Road. 404-634-6288.