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

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So they traveled around China with Weiwei and planned several projects together; some that got made, some that didn’t. The Bird’s Nest design was one of the ones that they worked on together, but it was an open design competition. Ai Weiwei was not invited to design the Bird’s Nest. Ai Weiwei helped and everyone acknowledges that, but I’m not even sure if his name is on the entry. That happened to be the design that got picked.  

That is just my take on it. It’s a great news story for people to hear, 'Oh, there’s a Chinese artist who helped with this design and that’s why he had the platform to be interviewed by The Guardian and to speak out. He was already writing this stuff on his blog by then, but he’s really proud of the Olympic stadium design. He’s just didn't like the way that it's been used.

So the Chinese government didn’t try to suppress the fact that he at least did have some participation in it?
I guess not. I mean, it's interesting to look at the Beijing Olympic Committee materials and see how they describe it. It’s funny because I worked on the Olympic website, but I never was too keyed into Ai Weiwei so I wasn’t looking for that. I wonder if there’s a description? I bet you it just says Herzog & de Meuron but I don’t know.

And you know, it didn’t end up being useful for the film but one day I did do a "Man on the street" thing in front of the Bird’s Nest stadium asking mostly Chinese tourists from outside of Beijing if they knew who designed the Olympic stadium.  Most people just said, "European architects, right?" Then, I’d ask if they knew there was a Chinese participant as well and they'd say 'no' and then I would show him his picture. I’d say, “Have you heard of Ai Weiwei? He’s a famous Chinese artist.” “Oh, I’ve never heard of him.” And then I'd say, “Have you heard of Ai Qi?”  And they would say, “Oh, the poet?  Yeah. He was in our textbooks when we were in school.” And I’d say, “Oh, that’s his son.”  "Oh, OK," was the usual response. That was pretty much scripted how every conversation went.  

I think that is a pretty clear indication that he was not touted in the Chinese press. If he had been another person, they would have probably downplayed the Swiss role.

Did you ever run afoul of the authorities while making this film? There were moments when he was confronting the police who had injured him and other very tense moments caught on film...
I was with him on a trip to Chengdu [where he was assaulted by police] and the follow up where he was going to the police stations and the courthouses. It’s not in the film because it doesn’t need to be, but at some point I was forced to stop filming on each of those trips. It’s amazing what I had and it’s amazing what I was able to keep because I did have tapes taken or forced to delete material. But, when you’re in the field it’s really good to keep changing tapes very frequently. So I never really lost any footage basically, and nothing ever came out of someone taking down my visa and passport information.

Obviously, I was filmed when I was with Weiwei and and there were surveillance cameras at his door every day.  I think when those cameras were first installed I would try to obscure my face from the camera.  But at some point it was like, whose even watching this and what is the consequence, you know?  I also felt like I was an accredited journalist and I was totally within my right to be reporting. Obviously, taking all the tapes out had a little bit of a strategy and also splitting them up between people and backing them up on hard drives.  

But in general, though, also I wasn’t just dropped into China and had to start working on this. I had been living there for a while and I think behaved in the best way possible to try and avoid problems.  Maybe I was also lucky that I wasn’t that important to anybody. Essentially, it’s really good to not be important to anybody [laughs]. There’s this kind of big brother thing in China and clearly you can see in this film how they can do whatever they want to anyone, but you really have to rise to the level where they don't care to do anything to you.  

Did either you or Ai Weiwei have any concern about how China would be portrayed? I mean, obviously he wants a change in the system and so forth, but more broadly speaking about Chinese culture and its people, were either of you concerned how the broader China could be portrayed to the outside world?
Yeah. I mean, I guess my attitude was this...What I see is that China wrote its own role into the film. There was no intention coming out to frame it in any particular way. What I think this is, is a window into a subculture, but not sure if that's the right word. But it’s a movie not just about Ai Weiwei. You kind of see how there is a lot of diversity of opinion.  It’s not like Ai Weiwei going against the party line. It’s also about people who are trying to accomplish things, to question things who want to push for more freedom of expression or just have fun on the internet or whatever…

To see that on a more ground level way is pretty cool. The fact that China chooses to react the way that it does - I mean, I just kind of feel like I was really excited about this movie before Weiwei was detained and I was not expecting that to happen.  I did not think I was making a movie that was leading up to that, and so when they did, besides it being a horrifying and really scary period of time, my reaction was honestly: China you just went and really simplified the story. A lot of what we’d been working on in the edit was a challenge but a fun challenge to find the reality of the story.  He had been running into difficulties but he’s also traveling freely. He’s an internationally acclaimed artist. Maybe this is modern China, so let’s explore all these contradictions and the tension of him doing what they don't want him to do, but they’re letting him. I would have been happy to make that film. I honestly don’t feel like I’m glad that he was detained.  

And frankly the last few years since this project began has seen a downward trend in terms of openness and people being able to report and speak out; foreigners, Chinese, everybody in China.  And that’s not – I mean, I’m not rooting for that to be the case.

But the truth is it happened and so that’s how the story is.  That’s kind of how I see it.  Otherwise, there wasn’t really any discussion about how it was going to come out.  It was just like this is the cards we were all dealt; this is the story.

But of course Ai Weiwei is not the only prominent political dissenter, but he had long escaped formal detention while others had been, including Nobel Peace Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo. Did he ever give off a sense that maybe he felt guilt or embarrassment that his fame had shielded him from authorities up until the time they finally took him in?
When I would ask him how is it that other people have things happen and somehow you’re still continuing as usual. I would ask that and a lot and other people would too. His answer was basically that they can "do whatever they want to me whenever they want. Do you really think I’m safe?"  He would say, "I don’t think I’m like safe." He’d also say that yes, maybe because you’re famous there's some protection, but you don’t start out as famous. "Maybe this is what I’m choosing to do with my fame."  

When did you feel the film and the story you wanted to tell had been completed?
I did see Weiwei afterwards and I went back to Beijing in September and we had also shown him the film. I did say to him, 'can we do more interviews in case later something happens and you may want to say something in addition to all this?" That was the only moment about the creation of this film that he ever weighed in on it and it was obviously after the fact, but he said, "If I thought the movie wasn’t done, maybe I would think about doing more interviews with you, but I think this is the place to end. " I kind of agreed, to be honest. I felt like I just had to ask…  I feel like we don’t know yet what to make of this and what’s going to happen.

Forgive me if this was ever brought up in the film because I don’t readily recall at the moment, but was it ever brought up to him by anyone that he can still Tweet from New York and just say "fuck it. Go be a rich, famous artist in New York and you can say whatever you want without all this hassle?"
It’s true. Yeah, it’s really true. I feel like a lot of his peers feel like if he chose to pick up and move to Berlin or move to New York - I mean, nobody can ask someone to be a martyr. I really did get that – it’s not in the film, but yes, I got that from a lot of people that was sort of like it’s unfair [to say] he has to stay or to feel like it would be wrong if he left… If they told him, "Okay, Weiwei now you can leave but you can never come back..."

Right now, I think the answer is still - no. I think he wants to be able to be in China, but he wants to be able to freely travel because that’s what his life and work entails. But I do wonder that there may be a set of circumstances where the answer is going to be different down the road.  I don’t think it’s impossible, which is sad.

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