Alison Klayman's documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry won a Special Jury Prize "for spirit of defiance" at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. An intimate portrait of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, particularly as he goes about his work and rankles the Chinese government, the film is the result of three years Klayman spent following and shooting her willing subject. A Brown graduate and fluent speaker of Mandarin Chinese, Klayman developed her chops as a freelance journalist (perhaps most notably filing reports for NPR's All Things Considered) before taking up her camera for Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. When she came to town for The San Francisco International Film Festival, I spoke to Klayman at the Four Seasons Hotel.
Groucho: So you sort of stumbled on Ai Weiwei as a subject, I think. Can you describe how you first met him and what made you eventually decide to pursue a documentary about him?
Alison Klayman: Sure. Well, you know, the story couldn't have started if I hadn't moved to China in 2006, for no good reason at all. So I'm a big advocate of just travelling on a whim. And I was hoping to learn Mandarin and maybe get to do journalism and documentary film somewhere down the line, but I definitely didn't think it would actually happen (laughs) for me like this. So I moved there in 2006, but it was 2008 when I first met him. What I knew about him I really knew through my roommate, who was curating an exhibition of his New York photographs, which you see in the film; those are the photos from the 1980s, when he lived in New York. And that was quite a project because he had taken over ten thousand photographs during that time, that he had stored very meticulously in binders and shoeboxes, but had developed very few of them and had looked back on them almost zero. They're a real treasure trove: Tompkins Square Park Riot, Allen Ginsberg, Tan Dun, most major Chinese cultural figures, y'know, hanging out in dirty basements in the Lower East Side, or Williamsburg, with Weiwei. So it was a real task for my roommate, Stephanie Tung; it was for a gallery in Beijing called Three Shadows Photography Art Center. And as she was finishing that project, she asked if I'd make a video for the exhibition. And that was how I met Weiwei, so our relationship from Day One was "This is Alison; she has a camera," you know? And I think that—I didn't know that much about him; what I knew is that he had a very popular blog, that was sometimes incendiary and had lots of photos of cats and him, y'know, cutting people's hair and sort of doing silly things, that he was a very well-known contemporary Chinese artist and that he had helped design the Olympic stadium and then spoke out against the Olympics. That was probably the gamut, that and those photos that were around my house for so many months. But upon meeting him, I really think, even in Day One, it was so clear, first of all, that he was very outspoken, and he talked about China and politics in a way that was not typical in my experience up till that point, that he was really, really charismatic, and within those first few weeks of filming, part of it was just feeling like there's a lot more to this guy than just the New York years. Though I have to say, I think those New York years are super-fascinating and there could be a whole movie made on that as well. But he started to tell me also about his earthquake project; I was starting to learn more about his background in terms of his father, in terms of how he kind of shaped Chinese contemporary art as well.
Groucho: So was it something of a matter of "Why stop?" at a certain point?
Alison Klayman: Well, it was sort of like—even after—at the end of that first twenty-minute film that I did, that was really about that body of photographs—
G: Those years—
AK: Yeah, and even less about the years than those photographs specifically. So that was also kind of examining one part of his artistic practice, which is taking photographs, that had suddenly also shown up in his life in later years with digital photography on his blog, y'know, that enabled him to take ten thousand photos, like, a month now. But that I already felt like I had material that I was like, "It's a shame that I can't use him talking about Tienanmen, for example: that couldn't go into that short video 'cause he was like, "What do you want? Want to get [my] gallery shut down?". And the earthquake project that was coming up. So I felt like at the very least I was sort of like, "I'm going to check in with him when the earthquake anniversary comes around in May, because "Let's see what he came up with after all this time." And so for a while, I was kind of checking in with him, partly in just sort of exploratory filming, and seeing if he would kind of let me, and also partly in my capacity as a journalist 'cause I got my journalist accreditation in China around the same time that I first met him. So I reported stories about his earthquake project, and when he was beaten in Chengdu, which I saw over social media, and I had his phone number, so I could call him and get an interview right away. That was sort of a beat that I was on, in some ways. But what I really, really wanted to do was get to spend some real in-depth time sort of figuring out what he's really like, y'know? And I was fortunate enough to get to do that. And I think the movie is, in a lot of ways, a product of just a very extensive investigation, of just kind of hanging around seeing what was going to happen.
G: He self-documents, and is interviewed pretty much daily, and then when he does something in public, there's always—he's surrounded by still cameras and video cameras. Did it ever worry you that you might be redundant?
AK: (Laughs.) No, I think that I didn't worry because I felt like that was—the only way to not be redundant was to do a really thorough sort of long-term job, y'know? Because I think his cameras are vital, and I feel like they're more—when he makes his own documentaries, then you can sometimes see the scenes in his own films, but it's a very quick turnaround, and it has a different kind of sense of urgency, that it's like evidence. This is like documenting evidence to show you what just happened. And I think I knew at a certain point what I was trying to do was really a) be a character study—which would also be really hard for him to do about himself, and I think he knows that, too, that there's something that another person can do about you that you cannot do about yourself. But that also once [it]'d started to become a bigger project in my mind and I understood "So I'm going to bring the biography in, and I'm gonna—and I think my role as an outsider was also that I wanted to frame it in a way that it was gonna show him to people that aren't necessarily familiar with China or necessarily familiar with him. So in those ways—you can see actually, I think there were some moments where I chose to try and make it so you didn't see the other cameras in the shot, and I was purposely like "I want to have this shot for me." And then there were other moments where I was very purposely filming all the people with the cameras 'cause that was an important part of the scene. There were moments where we were together where we were genuinely just the only two people, but it was a total mix. And I think that was kind of a fun game for me, too: it was like an exercise in framing every time. "Okay, do I want [Ai Weiwei's personal videographer] Zhao Zhao in this, or do I not want Zhao Zhao in this shot?"
G: That's funny; I was going to ask you about that very thing.
G: So you've said before that his life is like an artwork. And...you get the impression from the film that it's sort of like this performance art. You know, everywhere he goes, if there's someone observing him, it's art.
G: To what degree do you think that's intentional on his part? Obviously when we see him working on art installations, for example, it's very intentional, but what about that? Did you get a sense?
AK: Sure...early on my feeling—or maybe like a year ago, as I was just beginning to process the footage and getting towards a rough cut—and my answer to a question like that, like "Where is it art and where is it, you know, activism or politics?" was...that that was when I sort of started to understand, I think. And I don't think I understood until I started to watch all the footage. But, I mean, you're absolutely right. I think he's very aware of the difference between a work that appears in a museum, a large-scale installation, or a photograph that's intended—like him dropping the urn was always intended, I think as a fine-art piece, right?—and a single tweet, where he re-tweeted someone and went "Hhuh." You know? A lot of his tweets might just be him agreeing or saying "thank you" or "good morning to you, too." So it's not for him to say, like, "I had a sip of water. That is my art." I think that he's a lot more grounded than that. But, on the other hand, I have really started—especially at this point in time, I think even more so than ever that...in general, his entire—he can also talk about his artistic practice as sort of a more total thing—which does also include social media and communication and, you know, antics and conflicts with authorities. And I do think that his artistic practice does kind of encompass all of these things. But I think in terms of what is an artwork, he does have a lot of respect for the museum space and for the artistic tradition. And so he's also kind of clear on that. And I don't think he would identify as a performance artist, per se. But he's influenced a lot of Chinese performance artists.
G: You had, I read, one brush with Chinese authorities, so what happened in that instance?
AK: Sort of both times that I went to Chengdu, which were the two follow-up trips from his initial getting hit in the head, which he recorded himself with a pen recorder, that night when that happened. But when he returned to file a complaint at the police office, and then on the anniversary of that beating—because his complaints were being turned down, he went again to file at many different offices—those were the only times, really, filming where I felt there was risk and conflict with authorities that was brought to bear. First, namely, the biggest fear was always that anything could happen to the Chinese citizens that I was with, because I think that the risk for them was much greater than for me. But at the same time, I was able to save all my footage. But both of those trips, some of that footage where you think, "How is it that she filmed in a police station?" it didn't happen that I filmed and everyone said "thank you," and I left. I was stopped—because I was there also with Evan Osnos, so we were two white foreigners there, one with an audio recorder, one with a camera. And they had called in some English-speaking police, [who] must've been from a more central authority, who were brought in specifically to talk to us, ask for our documents, and to force us to delete our material. It was all very, very civil, though.
G: So you did actually have to give up a little bit of footage?
AK: I switched out the tapes beforehand, so I deleted a blank tape for them, essentially. Not to give away too many tricks (chuckles), but, um—
AK: The second time—which was when the sort of shoving match began, when they captured the plainclothes officers, which was a lot less pleasant—that was legitimately scary. I mean, I was—from the the car, you can even hear me in the movie (whispers inaudibly)...you know, like you can hear me experiencing it. I was texting other people, telling them what was happening. I was very concerned, first of all, that everyone I was with was going to be detained. I think it was amazing that we eventually did all just get away. I originally stayed in the car because we just had decided that way, but then I had sort of another angle at everything that was happening because of that. That shooting—literally the moment where that footage cuts off—is because there was someone banging on the van, and I very, very quickly changed tapes. He had grabbed my camera, you know, was yelling at me to show my documents, but I sort of feigned that I didn't know what he was saying 'cause I didn't want anyone to see I was a journalist; that's when they're like "Definitely delete this"! And eventually—I was really worried he would smash my camera, but in the end he just took the tape. And gave up with me, 'cause I just seemed like I had no idea what was going on. We were followed, though, after that: the same plainclothes officers followed us pretty much all the way back to the hotel. I feel like also I was a little concerned about bringing the footage back to New York. And that night I slept with the tapes in my pockets. But I also had a feeling, to be perfectly honest, that to break into—obviously they had broken into Weiwei's room in the past, in Chengdu, in the middle of the night. But if they had done it to a room with an accredited foreign journalist, I thought that that would be a pretty big story.
AK: So I also kind of felt like...my position—because I was a journalist, doing journalism work...I felt like in some ways I should be protected by that.
G: I wanted to ask if Ai Weiwei expressed any opinions to you about what your film should or should not include, or if he was extremely hands off.
AK: He was extremely hands off. The only way that he ever exerted influence was if he decided that I shouldn't film something. I mean, he never says, on the back end, "I want your movie to have this, or not that." And really the only thing that changed over time, or that was difficult at first, but it wasn't completely barred, was filming with his son. Which I think also was kind of fair enough; it's a personal matter. But it was so clear to me, from shortly after he was born, that this was an incredibly life-changing thing for Weiwei, and he was very important to him. But he didn't want to let me film; I think it took me over a year of asking. Although mostly not asking; mostly I just let it drop, but then he sort of brought it up again. And I'm so grateful that he, y'know, let me film that day, and I also got to meet his son's mother and speak with her. But then a few months later, he brought them to the Tate...that was signaling a new sort of "Okay, so this is how it's going to be." It was kind of a more closed matter before, but then his fans knew about [Ai's son] on Twitter, and he was out in public with him, and since then it's been also—it's not as difficult of a thing to capture. But it's still, like, a private family moment. So that was kind of the only way, because even after seeing the film, he didn't ask to change a single thing. And I think he kind of knew that it was something that—I mean, I think he could tell from me that there was really no agenda on it, per se, but I think the curiosity was mounting as time went on, as I started to have—and he'd say to me, "I think you have more footage of me than anyone except me." (Laughs.) You know? And I think, though, he really does respect the movie as my work, 'cause he had also said to me, "Y'know, I really think this movie is going to be, sort of, your time with me. Your experience of me." And I'm really grateful that he let it be that. But I wasn't really that worried that he would try to control it.
More to come...