GR Interview: Director Alison Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry)

Ai Weiwei might be the most famous living artist today. Surely he’s a controversial figure, at least from the eyes of China and while he produces work from museum exhibitions around the world, he’s continuously persecuted. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry captures the history of Ai Weiwei, from his days in New York City, to his rise as a media and art star. The film captures both sides of him. His work, which also melds into his Tweeting and documenting his own persecution. Director Alison Klayman captures numerous great moments, from the opening shots of Ai Weiwei’s cats to his detention and release.

GR: It’s obvious Ai Weiwei wants to be on camera. I’m sure many wanted to make a documentary. I’m wondering how did you get to the top of the list?
AK: Well, I really lucked out because I was already living in China for a couple of years so by the time that I first met him I was based in Beijing, I was able to speak and work in Mandarin. And my roommate was curating an exhibition of his photographs for a local gallery. She asked if I wanted to make a video for the exhibition so that was how I met him. I was sort of handed not only the introduction, but sort of the responsibility of filming him and so there was never any kind of approach, really. It was essentially something that I came to very organically and I luckily I pursued it and he let me be around. And he liked the video I made for the exhibition so things kind of progressed from there.

GR: There have been other documentaries of some sort. Were those done concurrently while you began filming. I think you started filming 4 years ago?
AK: Yeah, I started filming at the end of 2008. There was a BBC Imagine, sort of an hour long piece that was really about him but it was about his Tate Modern exhibition. They sort of came around the end of summer of 2010 and was on air by November. They kind of came through. There was also a half hour show. There was also something done for German art television. But again, I think the nature of my project was so different from something like that. They’re all good, there’s a lot of movies that can be made about Ai Weiwei but I think mine is — my sort of thought as really a longitudinal project. I just wanted to be around to see what happened, I didn’t have an outline when I began and I really wanted to get it as personal as I could to really see what he’s like.

GR: Was the trust part easy to gain or did that come really fast or did it take a little longer?
AK: I think we did get along really well from the very beginning but I’m sure that didn’t necessarily equal trust but I think that it was pretty clear I didn’t have any other agenda. I didn’t have any preconceived notions about him. The show that I was making, the first video was about his time he spent in New York in the 1980s and the photographs that he took there. I also think it was kind of a fun thing for him. Here was this young American living in Beijing making a video and talking to him about his time as a young Chinese person living in New York and I just think that we did have a really good rapport from the beginning.

GR: Cool. Did you go there on some kind of grant or did you kind of just decide to go. I wasn’t quite sure how you ended up there.
AK: Yeah, I just kind of went, you know. My goal when I graduated from college was really just to go abroad and not China specific. Frankly I hadn’t studied China. I didn’t have any particular interest in China. And I applied for a whole bunch of those kind of grants to go to various countries. I came up with different project ideas. I didn’t get any of them. And I still wanted to abroad and so my friend who had some family in China said she was going to be going for a couple of months. I asked if I could come with her and that’s why I really went.

GR: While he was detained, what did you do? Or were you already done shooting at that point pretty much?
AK: Well, I thought I was done shooting a bunch of times, including then. The last thing I had filmed was sort of related to his Shanghai studio that was demolished. And it had been a couple of months since then and we were working towards a rough cut we were going to show him in May when he was coming to New York for an exhibition. He was detained April 3rd and so we continued working on the film – my editor and I, but it also send me back into production. I did film protest gathering and other kinds of footage. After he was released, I went back to China and did film some more.

GR: How hard was it to just draw the line and say I’m done with this documentary? It still seems like it still can be going on right now, I assume.
AK: Ai Weiwei is clearly always about the next thing, the new thing. He’s always in the news. So it was hard but I was resigned to it being an artificial conclusion, kind of with a big question mark whenever it came. I think the end the detention — it was obvious that had to be in the film but it really was his release that provided me with the best closure possible. In a way, I feel really good about that being the ending because everything that happened since then is still so up in the air. I still don’t really feel like we can say we have any perspective on what the detention means or where Ai Weiwei is now or how things are going to be different.

GR: Was the illegitimate child part difficult to handle?AK: It was very difficult to figure out how to edit it and not have people too preoccupied and confused but I always knew it was really important to show him with his son and as a father because it’s a very important part of his life and it’s a new part of his life. It was also hard to get him to agree to let us film him with his son.

GR: That seemed like something difficult. It was almost like conversation that was happening – was it another journalist maybe asking difficult questions, is that ok? Is your wife ok?AK: Yeah, The two times in the film where he does provide an explanation, it is with other journalists and it’s no coincidence if I was to broach the subject he would have just said that’s private and the reason he would get away with it is he knew I knew the answer but those journalists were kind of asking for the first time and so as you see he did answer and obliged their questions.

GR: I was glad you put that in. I just thought it was kind of necessary. Was your degree in history helpful for this documentary in any way?
AK: I think so. I view the process in making this film as not too dissimilar. I felt like what was really important was to get as much evidence as possible and do as much research and to make a conclusion at the end based on what I found and not the other way around. I really think those are the skills of a journalist but also of a historian.

GR: This is your first time doing a journalistic project. Is that correct?
AK: In a long form kind of way. I did a lot of radio journalism — those are obviously much shorter.

GR: So, what’s next?
AK: Next is to continuing to get this film out, which I’m also learning takes a very long time but it’s also a total privilege. And I want to do more documentary film but I’m going to choose everything very carefully because I see how much work is involved but I also really feel like I had the best documentary film subject. I have a big act to follow. We’ll see what comes next.

-Eric Nakamura