Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (And the World's Most Important Artist) Under the Lens

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei lead ArtReview magazine's list of the 100 most powerful artists in the world last October. The Beijing-based artist, photographer, documentarian, architect, activist, dissident, avid-Tweeter and charismatic father made a splash on the international scene when he helped Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron create Beijing's National Stadium - more commonly known as the Bird's Nest due to its design - which gave a jubilant government both a cornerstone and bragging material for the Beijing Olympics. While immensely proud of the project, Mr. Ai denounced the regime and famously criticized officials for its treatment of dissidents and its human rights record in the lead-up to the event. Freelance journalist Alison Klayman met the artist through her roommate in 2008 by chance as he prepped an exhibition of photos he took while living in New York in the '80s and early '90s. Initially commissioned to do a short video on the fly, Klayman, who lived in China from 2006 - 2010 producing shows for PBS Frontline, National Public Radio and A.P. took on a larger doc about Ai Weiwei. In the film, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry which will be released this weekend via Sundance Selects, she captured him being assaulted by police, confronting police, promoting his view of human rights and traveling to acclaim overseas.

But it's his political activism that has brought him both fame and danger at home. Authorities have "minders" in unmarked cars outside his home and studio in the Chinese capital as well as cameras pointed at his compound, which is filled with his beloved cats where he lives with his wife. The film also delves into his personal life and reveals the backstory about his very young son and his passion for Twitter and the internet. The latter were surprises for Klayman as she edited the film, which debuted earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival - an event Ai Weiwei did not attend, likely due to restrictions he now lives under following an 81 day detention by authorities. ML spoke with Klayman last week about her film and spending time in the glare of Ai Weiwei's spotlight.

How did it work out that you came into contact with Ai Weiwei in Beijing and get him to work with you on this documentary?
Yeah. The the answer to that pretty much answers like a whole host of questions like, 'how did you hear of him and how did you get a chance and the access and all that stuff.' I was already living in China.  I went there after school and I was there for two years already.  My roommate was curating a show for him at a gallery...

Director Alison Klayman and Susan Sarandon at the New York gala for Sundance Selects' Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry screening hosted by the Peggy Siegal Company. Photo by Aaron Stern

So you speak Mandarin?
By 2008, I did. In 2006 I went with a few sentences that I could use upon arrival.  I worked really hard.  I had a lot of jobs, which I saw all as vehicles for adventure and also on the job language-learning.  

By 2008 I was waiting to get a press credential which was coming through and my roommate was working on an exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s for a local gallery.  It was his New York photographs - all the black and white. There were 10,000 of them and I would look through them at the kitchen table because she’d bring her work home and she’d tell me about it.  So that’s really how I even first heard of him. I didn’t know about him before I went to China or anything like that.  And she asked me if I wanted to do a video for the exhibition - just do one of those things that plays in the lobby on loop.  I was really excited to try my hand.  I wanted to do more video film documentary, and so the first time I met Ai Weiwei it was just like, “Here’s Alison.  She’s here to do a video for the show.”

So I came with the gallery team and they introduced me. There was never a transition from like being a random person to being the person who films him.  It was just 'this is Alison, she’s here to film you' and, you know, it really – even in those first few weeks—his personality totally won me over and made me curious.  I wanted to know about him.  I felt like he could absolutely carry a longer piece than this kind of 20-minute thing.  I just felt like to do a character portrait of him would really not only be entertaining but also it would illuminate something about a side of contemporary China that I felt like I was just encountering for the first time through him.  

Our conversations were already [developing] about his blog and censorship and the upcoming earthquake campaign.  All stuff that just wasn’t going to fit in the video about New York photographs.  So I was definitely feeling that at least I needed to follow up with this guy and he liked the video that I did for the exhibition.  So that was also a good way to keep moving forward.

So when you decided to continue going forward, were there any boundaries that you had set as far as what areas of his life you could explore, because you’re following him in his home, not just when he’s out traveling and being the public persona of Ai Weiwei.
Totally true.  I mean, in terms of my working style, I feel like I push, but I’m not pushy in the sense that he would sometimes chastise me. He'd be like, “Why do you always ask?  You’re always so polite.  Just do it."  But filming in his home is a really good point. At one point, I [spoke to] his wife about the fact I was coming around a lot and asked her, “I recognize that this is your home and there really aren’t any separations here so please tell me if you ever like – if I’m doing something you don’t like, or if you ever want me to turn off the camera.”  And she was really sweet.  She was like, “Oh, it’s totally fine.  You can film me doing anything, but I don’t want to do it a sit down interview.  That really freaks me out.”  She has a very different personality than him in terms of media savvy and kind of playing with it.  

So actually much, much later I asked her for an interview, but on the whole I just felt like with him you certainly should never be embarrassed to ask.  And through asking there were usually no boundaries, except his kind of private life in terms of his son.  When he was first born, he said, “Oh, you should meet him.  He’s the smartest baby in the world.”  He was already the proudest dad ever.  He said, “You know, so you want to come meet him?”  I said, "Yeah, can I bring my camera?"  And then he’s like, "Come on, no.  That’s a baby."  And really it wasn’t a complicated situation. I found some boundaries, so I guess he had to get a little older before he kind of felt comfortable [with shooting him]."

And it was interesting.  I mean, we’ll get more into his activism side in a moment, but it was interesting though that the backstory behind his son actually came out while you were filming Ai Weiwei doing separate interviews with various press.
There were two. The first one was in Beijing with the New Yorker correspondent, and then the second one was the BBC guy at the Tate Modern.

For me to sit down and ask him about something that he knew I already knew the answer to was not really going to work.  I feel like he does enough interviews a day that he doesn’t need to talk if he doesn’t want to talk.  So I felt like [filming him doing a separate interview about his son] was probably going to be the only way for him to explain it and I think it’s really instructive to see how he deals with different people as well.

Ai Weiwei has been called "the most powerful artist in the world today," and certainly if not the most famous living artist, then definitely in the very top tier.  After your time with him, what is your take on his approach to art, political activism and how he connects the two?
Well, if there's a question whether they are related, I would say yes. For me, the artist side is trying to be as relevant and engaged and fostering more conversations.  To me, that’s definitely the most interesting.  I think how you feel about his artwork and museum [exhibitions] is up to people’s taste.  I personally really like so many of his works because I think that they actually don’t say something specific. I think they are kind of really hard to read and complicated and they leave a lot of room for you to say what the meaning possibly is.

When he gives an interview or posts a Tweet, he’s pretty direct about his criticisms and what he says he thinks.  So it’s all about his artistic practice and it’s kind of in its entirety. And he does have all these different ways of speaking - whether it’s in a populous way or in a fine art way.  

I think from the beginning I was definitely told that he was a very famous artist, and not being from the art world, I just had to take people’s word for that.  When I went to his show in Munich I think that was really the first time when I really appreciated that this guy is really, really famous.  He has a very big audience and following in Germany, but I mostly saw him in the context of Beijing.  So that was my first exposure to how the art world treats him.

Then there’s also the news world.  He was one of the few prominent people who would actually tell you what they thought on the record when you needed a more critical voice.  In a way, I felt like I was doing something about someone who was kind of over exposed but still room to do something that had more quality and substance. I was so focused on that, that I didn’t know what the movie was like, but I just I needed to be filming as much as possible in all these different parts of his life and stay really open and not draw conclusions on a lot of questions until I was in post-production.  

For example, I heard him for years talking about the internet, which was always the subject he would turn to in interviews.  I feel sometimes I was like rolling my eyes in my head maybe a little bit.  I didn’t think I was making a movie about the power of the internet because I hadn’t really examined it that much.  When I went back and thought about the meaning of his life’s work and progress, and also what’s going on with the realities of contemporary China, and the world - and all this pre-dated the Arab Spring and WikiLeaks and all this stuff -  suddenly I was like, “No, this is totally on point.”  I don’t think I got it at first.

It was interesting to learn he had lived in New York for ten years. And he had already at least participated in some protests against the regime in China while living here - of course with comparatively much less fanfare than his protests and criticisms since returning to China. But I nevertheless found it curious that he was still asked and participated in the design of the Bird’s Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics.
The thing with the Olympics is it always gets short-handed that he was asked but that wasn’t actually how it happened.  I tried as much as I could to make this clear in the film, because the film doesn’t say he was asked but maybe it’s not fully clear enough how it happened.  The Swiss architectural firm Herzong & de Meuron wanted to do more projects in China and they were introduced to Weiwei by a former Swiss ambassador and a really big collector.  

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