Alison Klayman on Filming Ai Weiwei

Posted on February 22, 2013

Independent Lens sat down with filmmaker Alison Klayman to talk about the joys and challenges of filming China's most famous artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei. Her film, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, premieres on Independent Lens February 25 at 10 PM (check local listings). 

Ai Weiwei is arguably the most internationally celebrated Chinese artist of the modern era. At heart, he is a troublemaker with a serious agenda: to challenge the oppression of the Chinese people by their government with rebellious and irreverent gestures. His activism has cost him his freedom repeatedly, but he never seems to lose his childlike approach to serious dissidence executed with a wink. But what was it like to film such a celebrated and controversial figure? Filmmaker Alison Klayman gives us insider access to the one and only Ai Weiwei.

Closeup of filmmaker Alison Klayman with Ai Weiwei 
Filmmaker Alison Klayman with Ai Weiwei

What impact do you hope this film will have? I believe there are several layers of impact to the film. The first is that people get to know Ai Weiwei as a person, going behind the headlines and the iconography. As a documentary film, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is able to provide a much more intimate understanding of Ai Weiwei’s character and motivations than a short news story can, and it hopefully means that audiences will follow his case as it continues to develop. By watching the film people also get a window into many aspects of contemporary China they might not have seen before. I hope it shows China as a complex place, with lots of diversity of opinion and a rich community of artists, activists and young people who care about improving their country. Most importantly, though, are the universal lessons contained in the film. It’s really a story about individual courage, about how creativity and finding your voice can lead to change, how social media is transforming our world, how rule of law and transparency and freedom of expression are important in any society. 

What led you to make this film? When I graduated from Brown University in 2006 I wanted to travel abroad to have adventures, learn new languages, and try to start a career as a journalist and documentary filmmaker. I started my journey by going on a five-month trip to China with a college classmate, and I unexpectedly ended up staying there for four years. It wasn't until 2008 that I first met Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. My first few weeks of filming were enough to convince me that he was a charismatic and fascinating character, and that I wanted to dig deeper into his story. I wanted to know more about who Ai Weiwei really was, what motivates his art and activism, and what would happen to him. I also thought that people around the world would learn something new about China by being introduced to him.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film? Hands down, one of the toughest challenges was when Ai Weiwei was detained in April 2011. At that moment we were deep into editing the film. Besides being wracked with concern, it was also scary because I never saw myself as making a movie about someone “without a voice.” The movie was about a great communicator, an artist and activist with a loud voice who used it to great effect. All of a sudden, for the first time, Ai Weiwei had disappeared. He was disconnected, with no phone, no Twitter, no contact with anyone. He had no voice. I felt I had a very urgent responsibility to tell his story and agreed to many interview requests. I was also constantly updating social media with the latest news about his case. I was very relieved when he was released, for the obvious reasons, but also because it meant I could go back to my job, which was to make an engaging film that would have a lasting effect. 

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film? It was partly informed by the unique circumstances of how Ai Weiwei and I first met. My roommate in Beijing, Stephanie Tung, was curating an exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s photographs for a local gallery where she worked, Three Shadows Photography Art Centre. Stephanie asked if I wanted to make video to accompany that show, and in December 2008 I started coming around to Ai Weiwei’s studio with her to film the curating process. That meant that from the very first day Ai Weiwei and I met, our relationship was always one where I held a camera up to him. We got along well from the start, and Ai Weiwei liked the video I made for the exhibition, helping pave the way to building a trusting relationship. Ai Weiwei is also someone who documents so much of his own life and puts it online for the world to engage with, so once I was in his orbit it felt relatively natural to be a fly-on-the-wall camera there.

Ai Weiwei and police/security guard

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut? In the early ‘90s in New York City, a Chinese artist named Lin Lin was murdered while he was out doing portraits in Times Square. Doing street portraits for extra cash was an occasional side job for many Chinese artists in New York, including Ai Weiwei. Lin Lin’s murder rattled the whole community of Chinese immigrants and artists, underscoring their precarious outsider existence in New York. Ai Weiwei photographed Lin Lin’s funeral, and was even quoted in a New York Times article about the murder, saying that Chinese artists did not feel safe in the city. I wish that story could have been in the film, and I am interested in exploring the entire story of Chinese in New York in the 1980s and early ‘90s in more depth. 

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you. There are several scenes that were so powerful that even while I was filming them, I already knew they would end up in the movie. When Ai Weiwei’s mother happened to stop by his house one day in late 2009, I knew it was a lucky moment for me. I jumped on the chance to speak with her, and she gave me a really moving interview about Ai Weiwei’s childhood and her concern for him, which was then made even more apparent when she began crying mid-conversation with him, saying she was worried about what would happen to him if he kept standing up to authorities. The other scene that is among my favorites, and that I knew even in the moment I was filming that it would be powerful, was when Weiwei was with his Twitter fans in Chengdu and a local cop started filming our group eating outside at the Laoma Tihua restaurant. As the cop fixed his lens on us, I had my own camera trained on him. When all of a sudden Zhao Zhao crept up behind the cop and began filming over his shoulder, I knew the standoff I was capturing was both classic and comedic. 

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think? The film is really a very specific story about one artist in China, yet I have been so pleased to find that the issues in the film are relevant to audiences all over the world. The film has been shown in theaters, festivals, museums and universities on every continent (except Antarctica), and audiences all over invariably recognize Ai Weiwei’s struggle as relevant to their context. They see the same kinds of problems in their society, and they see the same need to use courage and creativity to make change in the world, to protect freedom of expression and promote transparency and rule of law. As for the film’s subject, we showed the film to Ai Weiwei before we premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. His immediate response was that it is an engaging film but also an accurate depiction of what he has been trying to accomplish the last few years. "This film is about freedom of expression," he said.

Wide shot of Ai Weiwei being interviewed by Alison Klayman at his studio

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated? This was my first feature film, and I felt so fortunate to have such a fascinating and important subject, whose story touches on so many universal and relevant themes for our time. Sharing his story was an incredible responsibility, and that was one thing that kept me motivated to see it through. Every stage of this process has been a new adventure for me, and that is an ongoing motivation, too, the desire for more adventures. Finally, I am also motivated by the knowledge that film is a fantastic medium to really touch peoples’ lives. As audiences share their reactions on social media, every day I am able to see the impact that my film has on viewers, and that is a really big motivation for me to keep going. That said, I’m also just stunned at how much work an independent film is, including filming, editing, fundraising, pitching, premiering, finishing, outreach, distribution and promoting. I almost can’t believe any film ever gets made. It seems like each one is its own little miracle. 

Why did you choose to present your film on public television? Ai Weiwei is all about transparency and access, and I think public television is a model for that. We were really fortunate that our film also sparked the interest of theatrical distributors in countries all over the world, including the United States. To be able to combine a commercial run with festivals and educational/museum screenings was really important for this film, in order to help raise Ai Weiwei’s profile. Although he seems like a totally media-saturated persona when you are familiar with him, the reality is that the vast majority of people have not heard of him, or know very little. With our theatrical distribution we have been able to generate attention for the film in the year leading up to our public broadcast, and then make the film available to public television’s broad audiences. I only wish that I didn’t have to cut the film from 91 minutes to 83!

Ai Weiwei typing at computer with cat between him and camera

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film? What a great question. I’m sure I failed to complete an infinite number of things while I made this film over the last few years. I know for sure there were several other film projects that I was invited to work on in China from 2008-2010 that I turned down in order to pursue my hunch that I should make a movie about Ai Weiwei. I eventually had to leave my work as a daily news journalist in order to finish the film. Also, during my first few weeks in China I went on a road trip from Yunnan into Tibet (which is another story altogether), and I’ve been trying to finish typing up my journal from that trip and reviewing the footage and images my friend Julia Liu and I shot. But I still haven’t had the time. 

What are your three favorite films? I hate answering questions where I need to pick favorites. It’s too hard for me. I love documentaries, and it was such a treat to be on the festival circuit this year and see so many of the incredible new docs that came out. What I could do is recommend that viewers of my film might also enjoy some other recent documentaries about China. Some of my recent favorites have been High Tech, Low Life by Stephen Maing, Please Vote for Me by Weijin Chen, Last Train Home by Lixin Fan, and Disorder by Huang Weikai. 

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers? To go for it. Have adventures and travel and learn new languages and think outside the box. If you have a good idea just start filming and see where it takes you. 

What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film? (This question is meant literally.) Coffee. And if you’re in China???


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