Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a documentary about Ai Weiwei, China’s most celebrated contemporary artist, and its most outspoken domestic critic. In April 2011, when Ai disappeared into police custody for three months, he quickly became China’s most famous missing person, having first risen to international prominence in 2008 after helping design Beijing’s iconic Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium and then publicly denouncing the Games as party propaganda. Since then, Ai Weiwei’s critiques of China’s repressive regime have ranged from playful photographs of his raised middle finger in front of Tiananmen Square to searing memorials of the more than 5,000 schoolchildren who died in shoddy government construction in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Against a backdrop of strict censorship, Ai has become a kind of Internet champion. His frequent witty use of his blog and twitter, he is able to organize, inform, and inspire his followers, becoming an underground hero to millions of Chinese citizens.
First-time director Alison Klayman gained unprecedented access to the charismatic artist, as well as his family and others close to him, while working as a journalist in Beijing. In the years she filmed, government authorities shut down Ai’s blog, beat him up, bulldozed his newly built studio, and held him in secret detention; while Time magazine named him a runner-up for 2011’s Person of the Year. This compelling documentary is the inside story of a passionate dissident for the digital age who inspires global audiences and blurs the boundaries of art and politics.
Bijan Tehrani: What personally motivated you to make Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry?
Alison Klayman: I think, in a lot of ways, it was the perfect opportunity meeting someone who essentially was an aspiring documentary filmmaker, and I moved to China in 2006 and I did not expect to suddenly be a journalist and documentary filmmaker. That was my outside goal, to go somewhere, to get to know the place, to learn the language, and to feel like I could start to actually do reporting and try to do a documentary film. It was kind of like a dream I had, and in 2008 I was introduced to Ai Weiwei in the context of a project that my friend asked me to do for a local vacant gallery that was putting on a show of his photographs. You could not imagine a more perfect scenario because it was essentially camera-in-hand. I told him that I was going to make a video for the exhibition and he said okay, so this relationship began with me filming him. For me, I was so interested in him and his work, what sort of activism he was planning down the line, what was going to happen to him next, and what kind of a person he was. Above all, I really felt like he was a very strong character for people to watch in a movie, and he could carry a movie; I wanted to give people a chance to spend time with him for 90 minutes. It seemed really warranted and that was sort of how it all began.
BT: It’s amazing to see such an interesting character. I noticed that there are a lot of people, even among intellectuals, that are not familiar with the work of Ai Weiwei here in the US, so this film is a great introduction to the artist.
AK: Yeah, I think so too. What is funny is I didn’t know a lot about him when we first met. I had done a little bit of research and, as I got to know him more and more I started to see his position. At the time he was not only known as one of the best contemporary Chinese artists within his community, but also internationally. He is someone who very frequently goes on record to speak out and give quotes, and is always taking part in something critical to the point where I felt that, when you are in the art world of China, you recognize that Ai Weiwei is a very well known figure but you realize how few people actually know who Ai Weiwei is. In that sense, I wanted it to be something that was both an introduction and provided insight for people who already feel like they know a lot about him or China. I feel like the film has succeeded in that respect because you don’t need to have a lot of information about him when you come into it, but at the same time I have heard people who have been working in China for several years, or dealing with Ai Weiwei in the art world for 16 years, and say that they had seen things in this film that they had never seen before or that they had never known. There is just so much to this; it is an important introduction but it is also something that gives extra enrichment for everyone.
BT: I think he is a kind of artist that is revolutionary. His role as an activist aside, we have never seen someone who has so many revolutionary ideas in art and has had so many ideas that change the way we deal with art.
AK: That would be a very excellent compliment to him and I don’t disagree. I started the project with a really big question, “Where is the line between art and activism?” He is stepping over that line and playing with those ideas; he is becoming more of an activist and doing so very, very quickly. That question seemed very unimportant because I began to understand that everything is motivated by his world view as an artist. It doesn’t mean that every time he posts a tweet or gives and interview that that thing is a work of art, but the idea that his role as an artist encompasses all of these different forms of communication, trying to get people empowered and involved, can help us understand the answer to that question. For me, it is all about communication and, for him, sometimes the best way to communicate is through a photo on twitter. Another time it might a very large installation in a very prestigious museum, and another time it might be giving an interview. That is just kind of how it is, but I see all of it as coming from his perspective as an artist and it has given me great excitement about the possibility of art and also the possibility of social media. It’s great that the film has inspired audiences to think about creative expression and social media and what possibilities there are there.
BT: One thing about your style of filmmaking is that it is very humble, because you are not trying to show off yourself as a filmmaker. You shed light on the life of the person and the stories run smoothly through your film. That is why your film has such a great flow to it, is so easy to watch, and so helpful for the subject. How did you come up with the style of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry?
AK: There were moments where choices had to be made, and even reexamined, to make sure that this is how we wanted to do the film. As I was filming, the material was interesting on its own. I felt like sometimes it would benefit from some quick narration, but I felt like it was so much more important to keep the focus on the story, so I never really tried it. During post-production, my editor would sometimes say that this could be a moment where we could hear more of my voice, and I just felt like we did not need it. To me, that kind of puts a value of judgment on what is being shown. I wanted to try to do it without needing to rely on my story to be a thread that keeps it all together. So I am glad that it worked for you, because it was an important choice. It is more open-ended this way, and you can see how everyone asks questions about how I came to the movie and what may come afterwards.
BT: How challenging was it to make this film, especially the parts that were shot in China?
AK: Filming in China, as a daily activity, was not very challenging in terms of what you might expect from authorities intervening. We only had some difficulties when we were going with Weiwei to appeal to different police stations and courthouses and we were going right to the feet of authorities to ask for an investigation, perhaps a lawsuit, and we wanted to come with all of these cameras. Those times were the only times during filming where I was stopped and I had tapes taken or deleted but in the end, no important footage was ultimately lost and, thankfully, no one was detained during the trips that I was on. Otherwise, I felt like it was an extension of my work as a journalist. I was often filming with Ai Weiwei in his home studio or at other studios, so I really did not run into problems. The biggest challenge, and I would say even bigger than the censorship and tape-taking, was his detention. I was already in New York at the time when I heard about it, and it happened when we were editing but it was such a game changer and it was such an unprecedented strike against him. It really raised the stakes for the film in a very serious way and, on top of it, we didn’t know where Ai Weiwei was and what was going to happen to him. So it was a really difficult position to work under!
BT: Has Ai Weiwei seen the finished film yet?
AK: Yes, we showed it to him before we premiered at Sundance, as this was always our agreement. Really, the only agreement we had was that I was allowed to film and that he was going to get to see the film before it came out. At that point it was even more important because he was in detention and there were all of these restrictions. We really wanted to make sure that he felt like it was safe and to his credit. Fortunately, he didn’t ask to change a single thing in the film, and he was really impressed with how much the film covered and he felt like it was a very accurate depiction of what he has been doing the last few years and what he has been trying to accomplish. I do think he is really proud of it, so that was a really good feeling.
BT: What are your plans for your future projects?
AK: There are a lot of projects that I am coming up with in my head, even though I’m still dedicated to bringing this film out, so I can’t start the next thing right away. I am really interested in more stories that touch on the same issues, whether it is about contemporary China and China’s relationship to the world, or about freedom of expression, social media, art and the ways that those can come together. I have a lot of ideas, but now that I know how much work documentary features can be, I am definitely going to start the next one when I feel that I have found the exact right way to do it. In the meantime, if I do more journalism, short films, or try out my hand at other things, I am just excited to start—I am really excited to start the next project, but I also feel like getting this movie out in the best way possible is really important.
BT: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is very optimistic and it gives hope to everyone, especially to those who are living in parts of the world with extreme hardships. Many can see how new Media is helping the artist and the activist in facing the many oppressions in their lives.
AK: I really agree, and I had someone ask me if I was hopeful about the future of China in terms of these issues. Freedom of expression, transparency, rule of law, and all of these things that appear not to be improving, especially over the last few years, and I said that there is a part of me that is really hopeful. When asked where my hope comes from, I realized that a lot of it is really in the internet. In making this film, I saw a lot of diversity of opinion and there so many people who care about these issues like social justice, rule of law, and freedom of expression. You see how Ai Weiwei speaks to so many people, and as much as China is working really hard to try and counter that wave, its just not possible. From what we know of this technology, it is just so clear that people will find a way. If someone reads an idea or a post, even if that idea or post gets deleted, you can’t delete it from their minds and their hearts; people will find creative ways to talk around the bans. It just seems so clear that the ideas will not be suppressed, and I think that is the best to have hope.