American film director Alison Klayman’s documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" has finally made it to Taipei.
How the film — about the artist and Chinese activist who has been openly critical of the Chinese government — came to be is an interesting tale of serendipity.
Klayman grew up in the Philadelphia area and graduated in 2006 from Brown University, where she majored in history and wrote her senior thesis about ''slavery and servitude in 18th-century Rhode Island.'' Six years later, she's the director of a well-received documentary about Chinese artist and social provocateur Ai.
I spoke with Klayman about how the movie came to be, how she initially met Mr. Ai and what the movie is about.
Intrigued by China, Klayman said she spent four years there, intially taking ''all kinds of jobs and working under all kinds of visas, including a Z work visa and a J journalist visa." Initially, she said, she found a number of random opportunities by answering online job ads, including working as an English coach on the set of a Jackie Chan/Jet Li film, writing about basketball for the official 2008 Olympic website, bartending in a private members-only wine bar, voicing cartoons — "I even made silicone dummies for a special-effects studio."
In 2008, she finally became an accredited journalist in China and went on to produce radio and television feature stories for “PBS Frontline,” the New York Times’ Op-Doc series, National Public Radio and others.
She first met Ai in a roundabout way in 2008: Her roommate in Beijing was curating an exhibition of his photographs for a local gallery there, and she invited Klayman to make a video to accompany the show. "Ai liked the video, which led to the building of a trusting relationship. Those first few weeks of filming were enough to convince me that he was a charismatic and fascinating character and that I wanted to dig deeper into his story.”
She filmed 20 hours for a 20-minute video, and in that time they covered a lot of topics that Klayman wanted to pursue in greater detail, including “his upcoming earthquake campaign” and how he fights censorship on his blog – and also “bigger questions like what motivates him and how he accomplishes all that he does."
So she continued to film with Ai, eventually getting support from a non-profit arts group in New York that supports movies about art and artists. "We got financial support from individuals and foundations, including a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter. It took many years to raise the money for the whole film, although shooting it in China was really the cheapest part."
In the poster for the movie, Ai is seen giving viewers the finger. When asked what she thought the meaning of the finger gesture, Klayman said: "My interpretation, which I also apply to my own use of the gesture, is that it is about the ability/right we have to defy, challenge, mock, question any power structures or symbols of power in our world. I also think it stands for a rebellious and also fun-loving attitude."
Indeed. "This film is about freedom of expression," Ai told her later about her work. He told her, she said, that he felt it was an engaging film but also “an accurate depiction of what he has been trying to accomplish the last few years."
The documentary has been shown in New York and Taipei and other world capitals, but it has not yet been screened — publicly — in Beijing.
"We're limited in our ability to show the movie publicly in China," Klayman said. "Later this year we hope to get the film out inside China using the same methods Ai Weiwei uses to distribute his own films, including online and underground methods."
Asked if Ai has seen the film yet, she said, "Yes, he has. We showed it to him in Beijing before the Sundance Film Festival. His immediate response was that this is an engaging film but also an accurate depiction of what he has been trying to accomplish the last few years."
Incidentally, in addition to Chinese, Klayman also speaks Hebrew, she said, noting that she began learning that language in elementary school when she attended Jewish Day Schools in the Philadelphia, and she spent one semester during her junior year in Israel.
When asked if her Jewish upbringing and values influenced her in wanting to make a documentary about the outspoken Ai, she said: "I think I grew up with an emphasis on Jewish values being strongly rooted in social justice, through my parents and my formal Jewish education in the Philadelphia area. [In terms of my values], I also think my Holocaust education and my being the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors always put a premium on speaking out, because — as Ai says in the film: “If you don’t act, the danger becomes stronger."
"Ai feels very familiar with Jewish people from his time in New York, and he even had a Chasidic landlord once,” she added. “He knew I was Jewish, though it wasn’t something we talked about in terms of religion but probably more in terms of culture. He himself does not follow any religion, but he does love bagels. I have eaten many New York bagels with him, and the last time I was in Beijing I brought him some, which he shared with his whole staff."