Alison Klayman knows she's a true rarity in the movie business: a director who can't wait for her film to be bootlegged and illegally downloaded.
In the case of Klayman's first feature, the documentary "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry," the reason for her enthusiasm is that she simply wants her chronicle of the Chinese artist and dissident to be seen inside China – and if that means using piracy to get it into a country whose government will not allow it to be distributed legally, she's fine with that.
Outside of China, meanwhile, her entertaining and moving documentary of the playful but outspoken artist opens on Friday in New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
A week later, a 10-city expansion will include Los Angeles – including, crucially, the AMC Monterey Park multiplex. Although it is located in the center of the Chinese community in Los Angeles, the theater typically sticks to major-studio fare and rarely books docs or foreign films, even Chinese ones.
Growing out of an unpaid assignment to make a video of Ai Weiwei for a New York art gallery, Klayman's documentary follows the Chinese artist's life since 2008, when he began speaking out against the government after helping design the famous "bird's nest" stadium for that year's Beijing Olympics.
Since then, Ai has had his active social-media profile shut down within China and his studio demolished; he was beaten by the police in Chengdu. In April, 2011, while Klayman was editing her film. Ai was detained by Chinese authorities, who held him for 81 days without releasing any information about his whereabouts or the reasons for his detention.
Last week, a Chinese court refused to overturn a $2.4 million fine levied on Ai for what the government contends is unpaid taxes; he has already paid half the fine through donations made by fans and supporters. The day after that decision was announced, TheWrap spoke to Klayman.
The court ruling obviously didn't come as a surprise to anyone.
No, it was nothing we didn't expect. The court ruled that they were not willing to overturn the fine, Weiwei was again not permitted to go to the courthouse, and again they shooed away the journalists and other people who were trying to wait outside.
But Weiwei said said he's going to continue to file lawsuits. He takes that as the responsible thing for the citizen to do. That might not resonate in the U.S., the idea that lawsuits are your civic duty. But it shows you that in a different context, things have different meanings.
What was your reaction when, during the editing process, Ai Weiwei was taken into custody? It had the potential to seriously impact your film – though obviously that was less crucial than the way it impacted his life.
Exactly. The overriding concern was how scary it looked in those 81 days. There was no knowing when he'd be out, what was really going on, where he was and what the charges were going to be.
But for the film, my initial reaction, very honestly, was "China, you just went and simplified the story to an incredible degree."
In what way?
Here we have this guy who is revealing fundamental, scary truths about this society, the violence that does exist, the lack of transparency and the way individual voices are crushed. He's talking about it all the time – but he's traveling the world as a very successful international artist, he's giving interviews left and right, he's blogging and he's tweeting, and nobody is knocking on his door.
Yes, he's meeting resistance, he's put under surveillance, there is the police assault and his blog is shut down. But ultimately, look at how much he's accomplishing. And I thought that would be kind of surprising for an American audience.
I felt like that was a really interesting tension, and we were working hard in the edit to convey that there was a really big risk. And then the government went and really simplified the story by doing exactly what everybody thought was going to happen to him.
Did you continue to work on the film during his incarceration?
We were working on it, but it was a mess. I would describe it as working under duress. We didn't know what was happening, and I felt too tense all the time. And we didn't really know how to end the movie.
But I thought maybe the movie could have a helpful effect if it was out there. So we kept plugging along, working toward the deadline for Toronto Film Festival. And then the day before we were going to turn it in, he got released. And I immediately was screening the footage of him coming back.
It speaks volumes to see a man who had been outspoken apologize to the press and say, "I can't talk about it," because he was under such restrictions.
It was so powerful to see him like that, and I felt pretty confident that that was the ending. You always run the risk of dating yourself with a documentary, but I thought that whatever happened in a year or 10 years, that is what he looked like on that day. That is the evidence.
It shows you what he's up against and that he's not superhuman. It's not like they have changed what's important to him, and if anything, this whole experience has made him believe even more that he is right about his critiques. Because he himself has had the experience of being totally crushed, and he's bouncing back slowly.
What are the chances of the film being seen inside China?
There's no possibility for any kind of official distribution. I think there's very, very strong interest in seeing the film. Every day on Twitter, there are people asking in Chinese, "When can I see it? Where's the download link?"
And essentially, that's how people are going to see it. It's going to be distributed the same way Weiwei's films are – either DVDs passed around, or more likely BitTorrent and other kinds of downloads. [laughs] I may be the most excited filmmaker to see my film bootlegged in China. And we are working on a simplified character [subtitled] version of it.
But also, we're really excited that we're going to have a distributor in Taiwan. Joint Entertainment is going to release the film in two theaters in Taipei, and we're going to be in the Taiwan Independent Documentary Festival festival in October.
Do you wonder about the impact the film could have on his situation? Maybe it will raise his visibility and increase international pressure and that will help, or maybe international pressure will cause the Chinese authorities to crack down even more.
Yeah. That was my thinking during his detention, very strongly. I wasn't sure if international pressure would make them double down on mistreating him. But I feel less ambivalent about that since Weiwei's been released. I really think that his release shows that the international pressure in his case does matter.
So I feel pretty confident that the movie, making more people aware of him, will not be hurtful to him. The really interesting question is what kind of impact the film will have on China. Even though we don't have an official distribution method, it will be seen – and I kind of feel like it's worth not thinking small about that.
My hope is that people see it who aren't fans of Ai Weiwei in China will get to see it. And there are so many students and graduate students from China in the U.S., and in Australia and Canada and the U.K. All the kids of the leaders at Kennedy School [of Government] at Harvard, maybe they'll get to see it. These are the future leaders of the country, and nobody's going to stop them from going to see a movie or downloading it from iTunes or sharing a DVD.
It's really important to reach those audiences, and I feel like there's no reason to think small about the possibility of the impact.
What do you think is going to happen next for Weiwei?
That's a really big question mark. We don't know if he's going to succeed, which makes me really sad. I was hoping that by now he'd have his passport, and one day he'd come out after the film and do a Q&A. But there's no way to tell. The state of things right now is really disappointing.