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Review: ‘Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry’

Plus Interview With Doc Director Alison Klayman

Above: Ai Weiwei in the documentary "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry."

Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei provides the fascinating and provocative focal point for the documentary "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" (opening August 10 at Landmark's La Jolla Village Theaters).

For most artists, there's a line between their art and their life. For Ai Weiwei, art, life, and activism are all part of one continuum, and impossible to separate. What makes this even more remarkable is that Ai is an artist working and living in China where the government does not like to be contradicted or criticized. The risks Ai takes are very real and in April of last year that was made all too evident when Ai was arrested at Beijing's airport and his studio subsequently destroyed. His detention is believed to have been prompted by his criticism of the Chinese government, although the reason cited for his arrest was because he was “under investigation for alleged economic crimes.”

While he was detained, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego organized a 24-hour silent protest that referenced Ai’s sculpture series, Marble Chair, two of which were on view and were subsequently acquired for the Museum’s permanent collection.

On 22 June 2011, the Chinese authorities finally released Ai after nearly three months' detention on charges of tax evasion. But the Chinese Foreign Ministry prohibited him from leaving Beijing without permission for one year. Ai's supporters have viewed his detention as retaliation for his outspoken criticism of the government and as a warning to suggest that no one is "untouchable." The Chinese government continues to investigate Ai. Although he can now leave Beijing, he still cannot travel to other countries, and he has remained relatively silent.

Ai first came to international attention when he designed the Bird’s Nest for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. His notoriety followed almost immediately as he boycotted the games to protest his government’s stance on human rights.

For the documentary "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry," filmmaker Alison Klayman filmed the artist during a two-year plus period leading up to and immediately following his arrest. She paints a portrait of the artist as a man who felt a burning desire and obligation to speak out about things that he felt were wrong. She shows how his art and activism are tightly intertwined so that when he wanted to make a comment about the thousands of children who died in poorly constructed schools that collapsed during the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, he published a list of all the victims on his blog as a work of “art," and then followed that with an installation using 9000 children's backpacks. They spelled out (in Chinese characters), "She lived happily for seven years in this world.” This was a quote from the mother of a child who died in the earthquake).

By using the Internet and social media (things the Chinese government tries to restrict), Ai gained a following of people who appreciated his willingness to champion freedom of speech, call for complete transparency on the part of the government, and to speak out against -- or flip the bird to --anyone or anything that restricted freedom.

Klayman does a solid job of conveying the artistry and activism of Ai Weiwei. Her film is a fascinating and sometimes enraging look at the risks an artist like Ai takes. His willingness to speak out despite severe consequences is inspiring, and his recent silence speaks almost as loudly as his work in calling attention to China's repressive tactics. So even in this quieter period, Ai is still making a political point to anyone willing to take the time to listen.

Alison Klayman spoke to me by phone last month during a publicity tour for the film.

Ai Weiwei and filmmaker Alison Klayman.

Sundance Selects

Above: Ai Weiwei and filmmaker Alison Klayman.

When were you first exposed to Ai Wei Wei’s art?

ALISON KLAYMAN: I first went to China in 2006. I didn’t know about him before I went to China but I really didn’t have any particular background in China. I just wanted to go abroad after I graduated from college and do journalism and documentary and learn a new language and have adventures. Fast forward to 2008 and my roommate in Beijing, Stephanie Tung, who is Chinese-American, was curating an exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s photographs for a local gallery there. And the way I was first exposed to him was through her stories and the fact that she brought her work home. It was binders and binders of the photographs that Ai Weiwei took when he was in New York in the 1980’s and so that was really my first window into who Ai Weiwei was. Then towards the end of 2008 she invited me to help her out. She wanted to make a video to accompany the exhibition for that gallery and she asked if I wanted to do it and I said yes.

At what point did you feel that you wanted to make this into a full fledged documentary about him?

AK: Within the first few weeks of filming I captured a lot of material that didn’t fit within the sort of rubric of the gallery video that I was tasked to make. You know those photographs are an incredible body of work, but Ai Weiwei was so clearly about so much more. We talked a lot about his blog and censorship and his upcoming earthquake campaign, and just hearing his thoughts and criticisms of contemporary China and knowing that he was not just bold enough to say it to me and my camera but to say it online in Chinese and to say it to any interviewer who came through his doorway. He was clearly such a fascinating and engaging character that I wanted to know more. So I was pretty sure that an audience would want to know more and would enjoy getting to know him over 90 minutes.

When you decided to turn this into a feature documentary, how did you decide on the approach you wanted to take? How did you want to show that his work and his art aren’t clearly delineated from each other?

AK: That’s a great question because it certainly was one of my leading areas of inquiry. I would say in this investigation into who was Ai Weiwei, one of the big questions was about art and activism. Is there a division for him? Are we seeing him move from one to the other? How does he make this distinction? One thing I would say is this was an open investigation in terms of my approach. The main thing I was concerned with during the years I was filming was just to get as much material as possible as evidence. Because I had all these questions and I would honestly say that a lot of my conclusions were really made in the edit and in having to think and articulate what I thought the answers were. I tried to film as much as possible of the art. Hours and hours of just artwork being made that was sort of the focus of his production in the last few years. Hours of stuff about the Internet, about him, and pushing as hard as I could to have the private family moments as well. Then when I came back and began to edit, the way I really saw it was I wanted to show what happened over the last few years because I ended up getting a lot of dramatic stuff. A lot of dramatic things happened to him which I couldn’t have anticipated. So in the end it was about showing what happened over the last few years without really putting any spin on it, just showing how one thing led to another and there was this escalation and sort of cracking down but he was undeterred. Then throughout all of that to dip into his biography and fill in details because his biography was really important as well and kind of follows the contours of the history of China.

Was part of your drive in terms of gathering all this footage and material on him -- because what he does was so controversial -- were you feeling like you wanted to gather as much because at any point in time he might get shut down or you might loose access to him? Was that ever something that went on in your thought process?

AK: We all knew, and certainly Ai Weiwei most of all, that that risk was there, and it never felt like he was safe. But at the same time, if it didn’t happen to him yesterday and it didn’t happen to him today, and if you are feeding off of his attitude and the way he lived his life, he didn’t live his life in fear of what was going to happen tomorrow. So, to be honest, it wasn’t really this sense that like he was going to disappear all of a sudden. But it was this burning question, how could he have this much of a winning streak for so long? It was always a challenge to figure out how to phrase the question, because it’s not like he was getting away with everything, he had his blog shut down, he suffered a police assault that sent him into emergency surgery, he had surveillance cameras on his doors. There was this like back and forth, and it wasn’t like he was getting away with it all, but the truth was, it seemed like he was achieving so much and that to me was really what the story was about without sort of acknowledging the reality of the situation. But also it was about how much can be accomplished in China when someone has the sort of the will to speak out. The courage to use his voice and creatively express himself and be innovative and find new ways to push things forward. So I wouldn’t really characterize the time that I spent on this as being sort of anxious that he was going to disappear. Obviously, when he was detained it was a rude awakening but it wasn’t something that I thought wasn’t possible.

Did you also feel that in documenting him that was helping prevent something like that from happening because it seems like the more documentation you have the harder it might for the government to silence him because there’s so much more international attention on what he’s doing?

AK: Well, absolutely. But I really learned that from Weiwei’s own attitude and his own sort of tactics. I never thought of my camera as being the one that was going to help any more than any other camera because he was documenting himself all the time. He put all this information online on his blog and then on Twitter so, it was definitely a lesson I learned, which is the power of transparency. Being open that would certainly be the tactics that were used by many of his friends and peers and fans, and so this was the community that I was filming. I certainly thought that they were onto something and they felt strongly about the power of what they were doing and I guess I was probably more wary than them in terms of asking permission a lot, saying, “Is it okay that I come and film this? Are you comfortable saying this? I don't know where this movie is going to go but it could be in a movie.” I just had always been taught by other journalists in China that basically you have to proceed with caution and you don’t ever want to cause any harm but I learned from my subjects about the power of documentation and they were the ones who sort of led me rather than I was telling them that by me filming you it's going to keep you safe. It was sort of them teaching me the power of all these tools.

What were you hoping people will take away from the film? What are you hoping the impact of the film will be on audiences?

AK: Well I think the impact of the film has a couple of layers. I think the first one is obviously to really get to know Ai Weiwei more intimately, and through his experience and the people around him, get this sort of ground level look at China, which is a very diverse place with a lot of diversity of opinions and people who are very like-minded to Weiwei in terms of caring about how the country progresses and the freedom of expression and individual rights and transparency and rule of law. But the greater impact I think that comes with that is really a universal one and for me Ai Weiwei is inspiring. Not just so you can care about China or him or be worried about China. To me the real inspiration is in seeing how -- as an individual citizen -- you can find the creative means to express oneself. To speak out even in the face of great risk and that's a universal message that is applicable to any audience member in any country, and for their context to figure out what is important for them to speak out to do and create. I’ve been so thrilled that that really has been my experience of how audiences are inspired by the film.

Watch the trailer and check out Ai Weiwei's website.

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