A couple of months ago, I saw a film that altered and expanded my definition of what it means to protest something. It also reinforced the truth that sometimes, to be a great documentarian, you have to do more than just point a camera; you need to be in the right place at the right time and understand the significance of what's going on around you. Sounds simple, yet so few get it as right as Alison Klayman, the director of AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY, in which Klayman follows her friend and subject, Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and professional shit-stirrer, for several years.
During their time together, Klayman is given more access to Weiwei's work and personal life than most "professional" journalists. And the resulting film is so powerful and suspenseful (particularly when Ai Weiwei is taken into custody by the Chinese government for being a little too vocal in his criticism of it. Because Weiwei is so famous and people found out that she was making a movie about him, Klayman was thrust into the spotlight her and was interviewed often during his time in captivity.
Getting a chance to sit down with Klayman a few weeks ago made it clear that the story of the making of this film and their relationship is nearly as interesting as Ai Weiwei's own life story. If you are a fan of great documentaries or have any interest in world you live in, you really need to see AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY. And please enjoy my talk with Alison Klayman…
Alison Klayman: Hi, Steve. It's good to see you.
Capone: Hi, Alison, it’s good to meet you. You’ve been on this whirlwind tour pretty much non-stop since Sundance, right?
AK: Yeah. Whoever knew that that’s what happens when you make a movie.
Capone: Well when you win a prize [the film won the Special Jury Prize–Documentary at Sundance this year], it makes a difference I suppose. I've got to imagine that with a subject like this--especially what you documented at the end of your film--it was tough to find a place to say, “I have to stop filming now and start actually turning this into a movie?” How did you come to that decision?
AK: That was an issue for me even earlier than that, in 2010 I would say, first of all because I feel like Weiwei’s story is so rich and I knew I was making a movie that I was hoping would reach people who don’t know that much about China, don’t even necessarily know who he is, as well as the sort of insider audience. I come from the China insider audience after being there for so many years, but I was like, “I want this to be an introduction for a lot of people.” So between his biography and the events of 2008, 2009, and 2010, I was already thinking, “This movie is going to be pretty packed.”
So I thought maybe the Tate Museum show would be a nice ending, because Weiwei’s story was going to continue on, and that Tate show is a massive instillation and would maybe yield some nice shots and, “Okay, maybe we can call that the ending.” But that didn’t last very long, because his Shanghai studio being demolished was clearly significant, and I was trying to put a strand in the film about demolition, because that’s a really big issue in China--property rights and the fact that anything is subject to being arbitrarily condemned and demolished, and there’s not very good planning in that sense.
Capone: That certainly came to light when China was building the Three Gorges Dam and then during the years leading up to the Olympics.
AK: Yeah, and there were other subplots that I had been following that were maybe more complicated where I was like, “I really want to get this issue in,” and then it was like “Okay, well they're actually going to take down his studio for no reason at all. Okay, back into production.” So I had started working with an editor, but I was still filming in China.
So of course then the detention became the biggest challenge of the film, because there was also a moment where we didn’t know it was going to be an 81-day detention until the 81st day. So all that time when at first it was difficult to work on it, but then after a while it was like, “Okay, well they didn’t release him after a day or a week or two weeks, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next, and this film is possibly going to raise a lot more awareness, so we should kind of get it out. But how do you end it when tomorrow they might announce he’s sentenced for 10 years, or they might let him out, and we really don’t know?” So that was sort of difficult.
Timing-wise, it did all work out. Fortunately he was released, and we still had enough time to step back and look at the film again, and that was really important for me, that we really were working on it up until Sundance, because I felt like there were parts of the film that were edited under duress. We were concerned about what’s going on, there was a lot of media interest where I was speaking on behalf of Weiwei in the States, because there really weren’t that many people.
Capone: I was going to ask about that. Did people find out you were making this movie? How did they find you?
AK: I think part of that is because I was also in China working as a freelance journalist and I was an accredited journalist from 2008 on. Basically most of the foreign correspondent community in Beijing knew I had come to New York to do post production. I wanted to edit the film in New York, but they all knew that that was the thing I was doing on the side, that I was doing this Weiwei doc. So actually the night that he was detained, which it was night time in New York, but morning in Beijing, I was up all night on Twitter and Facebook. I was already getting calls from AP, The Guardian, NPR, in Bejing for quotes or to see if I could help verify information, which also I think shows you something about how information travels in China, which is not very well.
I had the relationships where I could call people on the inside, whereas sometimes it felt like--especially for Chinese people where it’s like you don’t want to get people in trouble--it’s easier to ask someone who knows them about what’s going on. Anyway, then somehow everybody here figured it out, and I think part of that is because there really weren’t that many people. His wife and his mother did eventually speak out a little bit, but they also don’t speak English and they were in a precarious position in Beijing, but they were really brave and spoke out. But in general, people in his studio just decided uniformly they weren’t really giving interviews. People who work with him in the art world have other business too, so maybe they don’t really want to come out and give interviews.
So it kind of came to where I feel like, “Great Alison, someone should talk about him.” There were other people too, like Jerome Cohen, who’s a great legal scholar and knows Weiwei well, but I do feel like I ended up doing a fair amount of talking. The film wasn’t done, and. I was generally happy to have always remained below the radar in terms of the work I was doing, and the idea of coming forward in general and certainly at that time made me very nervous, but I was also like, “They took my friend away.” I was also very upset.
Capone: I’m guessing since you were working in China that you, even before you went to work there, knew who he was. Can you talk about meeting him for the first time? I assume it was before the film idea came.
AK: Kind of, but actually not really. I moved to China in 2006 with very little background in China at all, but it ended up being somewhere that I stayed for four years and learned the language and worked as a correspondent, and I had a lot of other jobs. I worked on a Jackie Chan-Jet Li movie [THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM]. I did all kinds of things. It was a great time.
Capone: That’s a different interview…
AK: [laughs] Yeah, man. That’s a good story, and actually I did a commentary for NPR about this job I had working for a Chinese actress who was in a movie with Jackie Chan and Jet Li. But in 2008, I met Weiwei, and it was really from a personal connection and not really from me having any knowledge about Weiwei and then deciding to approach him. My roommate was working to curate a show of his New York photographs--about 10,000 in the 1980s when he lived in New York--and those were really brought out of their shoe boxes and examined for the first time in 2007 or 2008, and they were exhibited in Beijing, and out of that body, they selected like 2,037 of them and they have since been traveling the world.
So my roommate asked me if I wanted to make a video for that exhibition towards the end of the curetting process, and I think what I knew abut Weiwei at the time was that he had played some role in the Bird’s Nest [the Olympic Stadium] design and had spoken out about it, that he had a very popular blog that was supposed to be very witty, had a lot of photographs that were like, “Here’s me in my hotel… Here’s my cat,” but they were sort of incendiary political essays at the same time, and that he was a respected contemporary artist. That was the extent of what I knew, and the New York photos were endlessly fascinating to me, and they had been around my house for months, because my roommate had been working on them.
So when I first met him, I came to the studio with my roommate and the gallerist that she worked for at this exhibition, and my camera was already rolling when he walked in. He walked in from his home area into his office, and I feel like you could feel the deference that everybody had for him, like he just has a big presence, but it also didn't take long to see that he wanted to crack jokes and have a good time and that he didn’t have to take himself seriously all of the time. I had heard that if you come as an interviewer, and he thinks that you’re not prepared or you have sort of preconceived things in your mind, he can me really biting and he can be tough. So that was what I knew about him, but I felt like he really wanted to joke around, and he was very charismatic and he had a really big personality and all of these people around him. That was also amazing, his work and his living space is the same, and there are people constantly coming to visit.
Capone: I have a note here about the humor. There are some really funny photos and funny things that he says. Obviously there are very serious issues going on between the earthquake work that he’s doing and the human rights struggles he's championing. But you do find these moments to let people know, “He actually does joke around sometimes and has a really biting sense of humor.”
AK: Yeah, and I feel like that was so essential for the film as well, that if it wasn’t also funny and lighthearted in a lot of moments, then it wasn’t really true to what Weiwei’s about, but I think that’s part of the mixture that creates his appeal. I really think his appeal is not just among the art world, it’s not just among human rights bloggers and lawyers. He’s got this fanbase that’s really people in their 20s and younger, and I met a lot of his Twitter fans, who many were former blog readers who then followed him on to Twitter, throughout the country in China as we were traveling.
What I found that was amazing is when I would ask people in different places very far apart from each other in China “What is it about teacher Ai that you find so appealing, and why do you follow him and tweet him?” People in different places would say “Because he’s from the '80s generation like me.” Which is a joke, because he was born in 1957, and that’s a term in China--the '80s. It’s called “80s or after” just kind of the notion that it’s a different world. It’s after Dung Chow Ping and opening and reform and capitalism with consumerism coming in ,and one-child policy. There are a lot of things that make it an “80’s and after” generation, but the fact that they find him appealing I think in large part is because of his appeal. It’s important that it’s not just these dry political treatises, that he has a good time and that he’s able to captivate people with both criticism and humor.
Capone: From his point of view with you coming into his life, this is a guy that photographs everything and videos everything, writes down practically every thought that enters his head. Why would he agree to have then someone do a more standard “document” of his life? Why do you think he agree to have you follow him?
AK: He has said to me, “I think you probably have the largest collection of footage, body of documentation of me, besides myself." I had the most, short of his own studio, and I think at the beginning sort of letting me do it was because we got along. I think the fact that I really wasn’t coming at it with any sort of goal of like, “I want to make a movie that shows that…” It was really like, “I just want to keep filming you and see what happens,” and I think that eventually became that that dedication became something special.
I wasn’t coming on shooting trips for two weeks at a time; I lived in Beijing, which meant that if I came over and it was a day when he wasn’t in a good mood or he was just going to be on Twitter all day, which is actually very boring to film, I’d just leave. There was no pressure and I didn’t have anxiety and I didn’t really ask him to kind of “perform” for the camera; I just wanted to be there a lot. I wasn’t like, “Hold up your work and look at it.” I tried to also piggy back, because he was being interviewed constantly.
Capone: I noticed you take on that observer role more than an interviewer or journalist role. Instead of asking him questions, you catch other people asking questions and getting information, especially about his family, that you might not have gotten by just asking yourself.
AK: Exactly, and I think also part of it is hat I just think managing the dynamic between yourself as a filmmaker and the subject is something important and I felt that with Weiwei. He was getting interviewed a lot and being asked the same questions a lot, and there’s part of it where if I’m around all the time at some point it might get a little bit like, “Whatever, Alison. You know me.” Because we’ve gone over everything before, and there were obviously times where I would be there and not film. I felt like it was important that I wasn’t filming all of the time and that was a a struggle, like “Should I be filming all of the time?” But I feel like you also have to be a human and show that you care without the camera
But I think that because he was often talking about the same things with a lot of people, it just made more sense to kind of see “Is the story the same always? Does it change?” [laughs] He’s someone who was influenced by Warhol as well, and the theme of fake and real is sort of there in work a lot, and so I thought it was really almost more beneficial to see how he answers when it’s a Chinese interviewer or someone who has very little context for the background. I think I was able to figure out how I wanted to show which answers.
Capone: One of the other things that you have to do in your film is explain modern China to people who probably aren’t going to know that much about what the situation is like in terms of dissidents and anyone that speaks out against he government and what the government does to silence these people. There is a low level of fear, and you have to get that across. Can you talk about injecting that into the story?
AK: Sure, and I think that Weiwei is a really unique figure to get that across. When I first met him in 2008, even 2009, to call him a dissident was probably a reach. We would talk about that term also. In the sense that, it would feel like you’re bringing a whole suitcase of assumptions of what that word meant and putting it on Weiwei when it might not necessarily fit yet. I kind of think at this point, maybe we’ve reached the point where “dissident” isn’t that much of a stretch, but in 2008 and 2009 there really was in these years that I followed him, a lot of things really did happen, and there really was an escalation and transformation in this kind of arena of what Weiwei meant.
Fundamentally, he is an artist I think and does approach all of this dissent, and all of his political criticisms really do come from the perspective of being an artist, and I think that that means that I was interviewing his peers and talking to them maybe about Weiwei being on the line. The people I’m interviewing aren’t necessarily lawyers. I interviewed a lot of lawyers, because they were Weiwei’s lawyers. But that that was a really big challenge in editing the film pre-detention. My editor and I would sit there and be like “How do we convey the risk?”
Part of what I thought was interesting about telling Weiwei’s story was to show when you have the courage to not self censor and to put yourself out there. Through him, we see how much you can get away with and the creative ways that he finds to express himself. I didn’t see it as a person being silenced; I saw it as “Look how much this guy is saying and doing in China,” and I thought that would subvert a lot of people’s expectations at the same time that he’s doing it. Meanwhile, people who are doing similar things are getting jailed. That was an important contrast to show that there are a lot of realities and lot of diversity of opinion in China, but we were like “How do we show the risk? The idea that him writing these things or saying these things is inherently risky?” I really feel like the Chinese government detaining him answered that, it’s like, “Okay, now everyone is going to understand that he was running a real risk, and there can be real consequences for something like posting a Tweet.”
Capone: It must have been so heart breaking to see him after his detention, because even the fleeting glimpses we get in this film, he looks like a different person. The confidence is gone. Tell me what you thought when you saw him for the first time after he was released.
AK: Within 24 hours of him being released--and that footage is actually Reuters and AP footage--because by this point this is a story that everyone was covering, right? But within 24 hours, it was online and in the movie, like I had already put it in the cut, because I was just staring like, “This is insane.” And I called him that night and I spoke to him on the phone, which also to me was the craziest thing. Almost the craziest thing since the detention was that he still has the same phone. Isn’t that amazing? The entire time I’ve known him he has the same phone number, and I know people in China who change their phones constantly because they are getting bugged and all of this stuff. I guess he’s like “Whatever. I’m going to be bugged anyway.” But to see him and I would just watch it over and over, it was heartbreaking and that door closing on the reporters wrung out for me.
The interesting thing is when I saw Weiwei after the detention, because I did go back to Beijing in September, he talked about watching that moment in the film like, “Man, I didn’t even look like myself.” So he felt that too, and I think it was such a daze, and imagine for 81 days he was held without any access to any press at all. He had definitely been told, although he says he was suspicious of it, but I’m sure he was also suspicious of his suspicions that “nobody cares. Nobody cares about what happened to you,” and then he comes out, and there’s kind of a vestige of his old life, the fact that every reporter is there and interested. I’m sure he was threatened about, well, we know he was told not to talk to them and just what was going through his mind and him holding his pants up.
It’s very overwhelming, and I do thing that post detention, Weiwei is changed partly in the sense of really realizing that his situation has changed. I don’t think fundamentally his willingness to challenge is gone. I mean I think it’s pretty clear that his willingness to challenge the authorities has not gone away. His belief in the values that he talks about, like freedom of expression and transparency, has not gone away, but his reality is there is pre-detention and pot-detention. The period that the movie covers is not what his life is like now. He has to call the police every time he leaves the house, and that was not the case before. He gets visited on a regular basis by the police who make very overt threats: “Don’t do this” or “Don’t do that.” It is a very different world, and I think him trying to process how he can continue to maneuver and be himself in this environment and whether the risks, especially now that he has a son, I think that’s what he is trying to figure out.
Capone: Could your film get him in trouble?
AK: Obviously, we showed him the film before it was at Sundance even, but his response wa,s “This is a very accurate depiction of what I’ve been trying to do.” The truth is, I don’t think there’s anything in the film that government surveillance of him wouldn’t have known happened. The real thing of the film is putting it all together in an engaging way, an accessible way for people who don’t sit and follow his Twitter feed all day and follow all the news about him. Otherwise a lot of it, pretty much all of it, could be found in the public record in his own documentaries in one way or another. So the only thing that could anger the government perhaps is that it’s being told on a wide scale now, but he has the protection to say, “It’s Alison’s film. It’s not my film. I let her film, and now you tell me not to let her film, so I haven’t let her film since you told me not to, and she’s doing what she’s doing.” And the truth is it is my film. He didn’t say anything about how to edit it or anything like that.
Capone: You went on the Colbert show last year, right?
AK: Yeah, pretty much a year ago.
Capone: How was that?
AK: It was awesome. I love Stephen Colbert. And that was my first television interview also, so I was pretty terrified.
Capone: It was before Sundance, right?
AK: Yeah, I mean it was while Weiwei was still detained, and I think it was interesting, because a lot of people in the documentary film blog world were like “Who is this person? I’ve never heard of her. She’s on the "Colbert Report," and her movie’s not even done. Who is this person?” It’s about Weiwei’s story, and I thought it was awesome to have that kind of exposure for a bigger audience about who he is. Yeah, I love Colbert. I was like, “I’ve been a fan of yours since STRANGERS WITH CANDY,” and he was like “You must be a very disturbed person,” and I respected him for saying that.
Capone: Alison, thank you. It was great to meet you. Good luck with this.