Filmmaker and WildChina Expert Alison Klayman‘s documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” was recently recognized by the New York Times as a critics’ pick. WildChina sat down with her to talk about what she learned from her experiences filming Ai Weiwei:
WildChina Travel: When did you first realize you were onto something special with Ai Weiwei?
Alison Klayman: The whole process of making the film, from beginning shooting in 2008 to finishing up the edit in time for the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, was really a succession of those kinds of moments of realization. I think I really understood a lot of the themes of the movie as I was shaping the story in the edit, and certainly Ai Weiwei’s 81-day detention in 2011 during post-production just raised the stakes for the film even higher.
These realizations, that this was an important and worthy project, first started with getting to know Ai Weiwei in our early weeks together in December 2008. He was a charismatic, smart, and fun-loving individual who I thought could easily carry a 90-minute film. At the same time, he was saying things about China that were biting criticisms, and he was doing it not just for my camera, but also online and to other journalists. So I knew he was bold, and the work he was doing on an upcoming Sichuan earthquake campaign seemed like something to follow up on.
When I did catch up with the earthquake project in May 2009, Ai Weiwei had already published the names of over 5,000 children who had died in collapsed schools on his blog. The blog was soon “harmonized” (read: censored) for good, surveillance cameras were affixed outside Ai Weiwei’s studio, and plainclothes officers began following him regularly. That was when I knew the action had begun, and his assault at the hands of police in Chengdu in August 2009, and the subsequent emergency head surgery he had in Munich, were an affirmation that I had a very dramatic story on my hands, not just an engaging character.
WCT: What did you learn about Ai Weiwei that maybe you did not catch on film or felt you were not able to share in the movie?
AK: There were definitely plenty of great moments or artworks that either happened when the cameras were off or when I wasn’t with him that I wished I had been able to capture and share in the film, but ultimately I am really satisfied that the portrait of him in Never Sorry is a great in-depth introduction to who he is. He is so prolific and multifaceted that I knew there would always be many great stories that wouldn’t fit within 90 minutes.
WCT: What did you learn about China through the experience of filming that you did not know before?
AK: Spending so much time with Ai Weiwei was really a privilege for me, not just to get to know him, but because through his experiences I had a window into the incredible courage, creativity, and diversity of opinion among so many people in China, especially young people. I saw firsthand that there are lots of people who care about pushing their country and society towards more respect for individual free expression and the dignity of individual life, who believe transparency and rule of law are important. Also, these people were not necessarily artists or activists or people who studied/lived abroad, and that was powerful to be exposed to and see in action.
WCT: What is an area or topic in China that you are particularly interested in watching develop in the future?
AK: I think the Internet is enabling further communication and exposure to new ideas both domestic and global. I think the Internet is not only a forum for creative expression, but it is shaping the expectations of the next generation. The changes that China will undergo in the future will inevitably be deeply connected to and influenced by activities that take place online.
I am also very interested in following the development of increased collaborations between Hollywood and China’s own entertainment industry in film production and distribution. Hollywood has been eagerly rushing into the space, and I’m curious to see what the ultimate results will be in terms of the content that comes out of it, and what it will mean for audiences.
WCT: Is there another aspect of China that you would consider exploring in a documentary in the future? or through some other medium?
AK: The above issues are definitely on my radar in terms of looking for future film projects, as well as long-form journalism stories. I am also really interested in the implications of having an ever-increasing numbers of Chinese students who elect to do some of their education abroad. It’s just one more indication that the story of China’s future does not take place just within China’s borders.
“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is currently showing in select theaters across the U.S. and will open in the United Kingdom September 18th. We recommend you check your local listings for showtimes.
Photos by Alison Klayman. Movie posters by IFC Films.