Filmmaker Alison Klayman talks about her doc on Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei.
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.

See also: Best of Denver 2013 - Best Celluloid Holdout: International Film Series

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.  

His detention was really a turning point in the film -- the whole time it feels almost inevitable. His attitude about his activism is very powerful, and he is openly but subtly defiant in the face of authority -- but it is still startling when he is eventually is taken into custody. Have you thought about doing any sort of follow-up film?

Like I said, he's a dream of a documentary subject in that there is so much to say and I never thought what I would do would be definitive in the sense that it was complete. I just wanted to do the best, first feature look at him. That was my intention. So I always knew there was more to the story, but for me I would want even more time to pass before I went back.

I think he would say the same thing -- you see Ai Weiwei in the film. He is very dedicated. That's one of his strongest attributes, I think, as an activist. It's his dedication. But as an artist, I think he is always kind of looking for new ideas, new ways of communication. Social media is great because he loves current events, so I think when he and I talk about it, he's also happy to see me doing new things.

But I think that, for me, the answer to what is post-detention Ai Weiwei -- because I do think it really is a major turning point in his story -- I sort of see this film as "Ai Weiwei: the Internet years." It sort of gave him this transformation to be the icon that he is now. You see all of the themes that have been persistent through his life. It's not like he suddenly became a "new" creation, but he was certainly enabled to reach his full potential because of his use of social media and this moment in the rise of China on the global stage and Chinese art and all of these reasons.

I think that now, this detention is a turning point but I'm still not sure what the next stage looks like. This still feels like a limbo. It still feels like he's been put in a holding pattern, unfortunately. He does everything he can to not be like that -- he's still prolific and he's still having new ideas. But it is definitely a question of what is the next stage -- I'm not totally sure. Ai Weiwei is going to be someone who is a part of my life forever, period. I would always be happy to return when the time is right.

Meanwhile, it is great that people can sty connected with him. What is awesome right now is Ai Weiwei's Instagram feed. He wasn't on that platform during the filming of the documentary, and even during the beginning of his release. But I used to tell everyone to follow him on Twitter, though he tweets mostly in Chinese -- but now you can follow him on Instagram and get a really good slice of life. That's a great way to follow-up on the documentary.

Did you ever personally feel as if you were in danger when you were filming him? There are some tense moments with Chinese authorities where a camera seems like the last thing they want to see.

You know, my primary concern was that my presence never negatively impacted either what he was attempting to do or the safety of him and Chinese citizens around us. I was also an accredited journalist with a journalist visa at the time I was doing this work and I felt like I was well within the bounds of what acceptable for my work to be doing.

I think it is the fact that the Chinese citizens were in a much more dangerous position than I was. That's not to say that it wasn't a dangerous undertaking, but my concern was not so much what I was risking, because I don't think I was risking nearly as much.  

There was a recent incident in Miami where another artist picked up and smashed a vase of Ai Weiwei's -- perhaps in response to Ai Weiwei's own series involving him dropping precious antique vases. I wondered what you thought about that situation, since you know Ai Weiwei so personally.

I really laughed when I first read the news, before I had read much comment. I know I tweeted a quote from the artist who had done it, where he said something like, it was a provocative gesture and he was sort of taking part and responding in kind -- sort of being in dialog with Ai Weiwei's work. However he phrased it, I thought it was the right way to kind of talk about what he was doing, to position it in dialog with Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei's response kind of didn't embrace it that much, actually. (Laughs) To me, it was sort of a reminder that Ai Weiwei's work can sometimes be shorthanded when people only engage with it on a surface level. In the sense that they might say, oh, his work is about destruction. But then you hear Ai Weiwei's response and you can kind of understand that, no, there is other thinking behind it -- this idea that if you wanted to out certain politics on Ai Weiwei, oh, like, it's not about private property or wealth.

But if you look at Ai Weiwei's response you can see that he thinks and understands that he's respecting that and that there is other thinking behind it -- like, I broke something that was mine and was for this bigger thing. He kind of took issue with it. My point being, I think it was an example of how people can read different things into Ai Weiwei's work and maybe from his opinion there are right and wrong opinions.

For my part, I thought it was interesting from the attention it got, too. It's certainly reminds you that Ai Weiwei's purpose isn't just about destruction. Ai Weiwei's work is contextual -- in some ways it's mysterious and can leave a lot of room for interpretation. But it doesn't mean that Ai Weiwei doesn't have his own point of view and if you don't take the time to look into it, you may or may not know.

I honestly didn't know how Ai Weiwei was going to react, and I was wondering what he was thinking too. I wasn't sure. It also reminded me that over the last couple of years of sharing this film with the world, I would say that the number of agitated responses that I might get to Ai Weiwei is not as high as I thought. I think the film actually helps people understand him in a way that people leave with a greater understanding and respect.

But I was always surprised how much people would talk to me about the dropping of the vase -- I think that is an artistic gesture that surprised me how much it bothered people.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry will be screened by the International Film Series at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 11 at the Muenzinger Auditorium on the CU-Boulder Campus. Klayman will be present for a post-screening discussion; the screening is free. For more information, visit the IFC's website.

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CU-Boulder campus
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