CinemaTalk: Interview with Alison Klayman, director of “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”

By Maya Eva Gunst Rudolph

Alison Klayman (alisonklayman.com)

Alison Klayman is a journalist who, while living in China from 2006-2010, produced radio and television for news sources such as NPR’s “All Things Considered,” AP Television, Voice of America, Current TV, and CBC. She is the director of the documentary film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Defiance at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. I spoke with Alison at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah about the film’s trajectory, the role of social media in making bringing this story to life, and her working relationship with China’s most notorious artist and filmmaker. Thanks to Alison and her team for their cooperation.

dGenerate Films: Can you talk a little about the origins of your working relationship with Ai Weiwei and how the project got started?

Alison Klayman: I had been living in Beijing for about two years when my roommate, Stephanie Tung, who was working at Three Shadows [Photography Center, a gallery and cultural center in Caochangdi, Beijing] got me involved in an exhibition they were doing of Ai Weiwei’s photos from New York. The photos are kind of a”greatest hits” series of contemporary cultural figures in China and provided an interesting window into this cross-cultural understanding of New York that I was really drawn to. I was kind of underemployed at the time and Stephanie suggested I make a video to accompany the exhibition. Rong Rong [photographer and Three Shadows director] gave me the okay and I went from Three Shadows to Weiwei’s house with the camera already rolling. It was really natural and organic. I didn’t just show up at Weiwei’s door and say “I’m fascinated by you, I want to film you.” We finished the video and Weiwei liked. I think it showed who he really is – very charismatic and engaging, fun-loving, doesn’t take himself too seriously. And then projects just kept coming up, so I feel compelled to keep filming. That’s kind of the beauty of Beijing – it’s very open and you can easily fall into these kinds of projects unexpectedly.

dGF: The film opens with a very loaded quote about Ai Weiwei’s cats and the fact that, if one of his many cats hadn’t learned to open the front door, no one would know that cats were capable of opening doors. This opening seems to speak both to Ai’s status as a maverick and also brings to mind Deng Xiaoping’s famous declaration that “it makes no difference if a cat is black or white so long as it can catch mice.” Can you discuss this opening?

AK: We tried out a million different openings. I was really uncertain how I wanted to open the film – we even had a different beginning at the screening at Art Basel. I wanted to audience to meet Weiwei first as an artist, one on one. Ultimately, I felt this opening gave the film somewhere to go and gave momentum to many of the storylines, especially the projects related to the Sichuan earthquake. It’s also telling because Weiwei’s house is just filled with cats – animals everywhere.

On the level of allegory, I think this represents the idea that Weiwei is part of a generation of like-minded people, but he’s still a unique case. It’s this fact that makes the film engaging, the fact that he’s completely unique and kind of one-in-a-generation.

dGF: How did you conceive of your audience as you were editing, in terms of their knowledge of China and of Ai Weiwei?

AK: I did post in New York with an editor who had no background in China and no Mandarin language skills, so this gave me perspective on what people know and don’t know about China. I really had no idea beforehand. I designed the film to add value for those who are familiar with Weiwei and get to know him in a new way, but I made the overall assumption that people didn’t really know anything about him.

Now, after his detention, I have to question what people really do know. Sure, people are more aware of Ai Weiwei, but I think this creates more of an appetite for information than a preconception. After the detention, I contemplated changing the film to open with this story-line, but I now see the film as a chronicle of everything leading up to the detention. We had no need to reverse engineer the film.

dGF: In the film, [Chinese art scholar and curator] Karen Smith says of Ai Weiwei’s art “because it’s Chinese, it becomes political.” This seems like a telling description of how even without a topic as politically divisive as Ai Weiwei, any story about China can be politically charged these days. How did this idea inform your storytelling or approach to the film’s inherent politics?

AK: This was an entry point to a lot of aspects of the film. I’ve seen Ai Weiwei interact with a lot of journalists and react to people’s expectations. I think these expectations are what Karen is alluding to. I think people applied the term “dissident” to describe him far before it was applicable. On a certain level, it has to do with anticipating expectations – of existing on a public stage—even though he’s on a public stage all of the time with twitter and press coverage.

Also, there’s an emphasis on what is real vs. fake in Weiwei’s art, so I was curious to know to what degree his politics are genuine. I wanted to know if his political convictions are genuine or more strategic. I’m convinced now that he’s genuine. He puts forth a set of values rather than a plan for political reform and it’s these values that make him a popular figure.

from "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry"

dGF: Social media has played a huge role in the film’s existence, from Ai Weiwei’s use of twitter to the kickstarter campaign to help finance the documentary. How do you hope social media will be used in the distribution and future of the film?

AK: Social media has been crucial so far. [Twitter founder] Jack Dorsey is a supporter of Ai Weiwei and we’ve had messages from twitter employees saying that Weiwei is an inspiration for what they do. We’ve had meetings in New York and San Francisco, but it’s all still really new, so it’s hard to say how we’ll work to promote the message. It’s a message that’s about much more than just promoting a film. In some ways, the film is a contribution to the history of social media. There aren’t a lot of historical twitter films – this may be the first. I think it’s a challenge for filmmakers regarding how to go forward with telling social media stories and giving a physical presence to these platforms that aren’t physical.

It’s also worth mentioning that I was really struck when I asked Weiwei what, to him, was a watershed moment in his life and he said “the internet.” At first I though, of course, the internet was a big deal for everyone, but this was a truly profound development for him. It wasn’t just a sidenote.

dGF: Can you talk about your experience with Ai Weiwei’s detention? How did this impact you personally and how did it impact the film?

AK: I actually found out through social media, maybe an hour or so after he disappeared, but before his studio was raided. I was in New York and stayed up until maybe 5am, skyping with studio assistants. They were tweeting from his account, acknowledging that it wasn’t him writing the tweets. It was really an all-sides attack on twitter, so I stayed up following [the assistants'] good flow of information.

By Monday morning, it was a big story and I had emerged as a go-to person who was an expert on Ai Weiwei, was in New York, and had strong personal feelings about what was happening. I think I probably had two years worth of media training in a few weeks. As far as the film is concerned, I took a week long-break from the footage after he was detained. When I came back to editing, I felt a sense of obligation to just finish telling the story. It was tough – a lot of the footage from happy times felt really sad. For a while, it wasn’t looking good. We feared he was going to come up against Subervsion charges, but I really couldn’t stop working. I just wanted to get the film out into the open, to create awareness, so we were just rushing forwards. The day he was released was really the best day ever. It was just so great. The things that’s funny is that, after everything, Weiwei still had the same cell phone number. There was a tweet about a text message he had sent from that number. I later heard from [UCCA director, featured in the film] Phil Tinari and he said he’d just given Weiwei a call and he answered. So I did the same.

dGF: Speaking generally, how do you – as an American – conceive of yourself as the person telling this story? Additionally, you interview a group of people – both expats and Chinese – who occupy a fairly specific echelon of Chinese artistic culture. How does this influence the way the story is told?

AK: First of all, I never saw this movie about someone who doesn’t have a voice. It’s not a story that hasn’t been told and I never set out to speak for someone else. I wanted to present a good, honest, behind-the-scenes portrait of someone who belongs to the world. I spoke with some of Weiwei’s friends who thought he was an American citizen, but in fact, he’s let his green card lapse. As far as the community represented is concerned, I really just want to feature good storytellers telling a good story. I wanted to stick to people with real cred, who know Weiwei, who are close to the world he lives in. In any case, it’s clear that Ai Weiwei is really a global figure.