With a slate of documentaries that have since dominated the festival circuit and have been picked up for various forms of distribution, this year’s Sundance Film Festival was all about non-fiction film. One of those standouts is Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry for which filmmaker Alison Klayman won a Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Defiance. Ai Weiwei is one of China’s most prolific and controversial artists and he has become one of the loudest and strongest voices of dissent toward his government’s oppressive regime. In 2011, he was detained for 81 days by the Chinese government, which only served to raise global interest in the man and his work. Ai Weiwei gave Klayman unprecedented access into his personal life and artistic process in the years leading up to and during his detention, which yielded Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Sundance Selects is releasing the film in New York and Los Angeles on July 27th. In anticipation, I recently sat down with Klayman to chat about Ai Weiwei and the making of the film.
Jackson Truax: A lot of people were first exposed to the film during your appearance on The Colbert Report during Ai Weiwei’s detention. Did you interact with Stephen Colbert at all before the taping, either in or out of character? What was that experience like?
Alison Klayman: He comes in beforehand, and introduces himself. But I felt like he was getting revved-up for the show. So as he’s explaining who his character is, he’s already starting to channel him a little bit. So, he said, “Just assume I’m sort of an idiot or a four-year-old, and that’s how you have to talk to me.” Then he starts throwing out jokes, like “Who cares about artists and China?” I knew what the spectrum was for jokes. Because it’s really not a joking matter… We didn’t know how Ai was going to be released or when… The range for jokes obviously wasn’t really going to be about his situation. It was really going to be about what the Colbert character’s take on China would be, or on artists… I was pretty fucking terrified, pretty much the whole time. That was the first time I had done television. I really, really, really like Colbert. I really admire him a lot… Right before we went on, I said, “I’m a really big fan. I’ve been a big fan since Strangers with Candy.” He said, “You must be a very disturbed individual.” [The show]…it was funny. And it didn’t make fun of any of the things that weren’t funny. But the entire taping of the show, I was sitting in the green room [stiff and nervous]. And all my friends and family that had come, they wanted to see the taping, so I said, “I’ll be fine. I’ll wait here.” I was watching on closed-circuit television. I was just petrified of being on-camera. But I’m glad that it reached people hearing about him for the first time.
JT: The film provides an in-depth and comprehensive look at Ai Weiwei as a human being, an artist, and as a political figure. How did you decide how to balance that, and how much of which aspects of Ai Weiwei to show in the film?
AK: I always knew that I wanted it to be what’s happened to him over the last few years… Because that’s where I had my material. But also, it ended up being that these were such an important few years, which was really just my luck in the timing, with dips throughout into his biography… There’s his childhood in exile with his father. There’s the eighties in New York. There’s the nineties in the underground art scene. And there’d be a moment where we’d also introduce that he’s a new father… The balance, I think in the end, some of it was just figuring out how to have the movie flow. Because, again, I felt like this was a pretty essential and interesting, entertaining guy. A very drama-filled story. So it would only be up to me to make it not interesting… I knew it wasn’t going to be about any particular artwork either. There’s a certain trope with an artist film, where it’s about the realization of a particular work, and you can learn about him along the way… But I just really felt like the most important thing that people should know about Ai Weiwei was not limited to any one artwork alone. So I think in the end you see all these different works and photos and underground books and documentary films and porcelain work. You kind of see it as it fits into the story.
JT: You interview members of Ai Weiwei’s family, as well as a number of prominent Chinese artists and cultural figures. Was everyone you approached excited to talk to you? Or did you ever meet any resistance?
AK: Yes, there were people who I tried to interview who would not agree. Most of the people that appeared in the film…I think I was able to convince them because they saw the point of it was…neither to extol Ai Weiwei nor to have any particular political viewpoint. I said, “I just want to know more about him. It’s a very open investigation into everything.” I would say most people were pretty okay with it. And that’s why they’re the ones in the film… Actually, the ones that needed the most convincing were actually New York based and not in China. Then there were other ones who strung me along for a long time. And then finally I got the point that they were never going to do an interview about Ai Weiwei. Which made me realize that I should have presented myself as wanting to interview them about something else. Oh, well.
JT: When you were in the process of spending all these years with Ai Weiwei and conducting all these interviews and doing all this research, what did you see, or hear, or learn that surprised you the most?
AK: I would say pretty much every time Ai Weiwei says something bold and critical, I still to this day feel shocked… Because I think, knowing the fact that he’s saying it openly, and all the consequences there could be and all the shit that he could be getting himself into. And the fact that he did it at the beginning, that he’s doing it at the end, that he did it all the way in between, I would say today, it still shocks me. Things that he did that surprised me…he put up the surveillance cameras on himself. He had this Weiwei-cam. In the film, when he had the demolition party, the river crab party… It shouldn’t surprise me at this point. But it’s amazing how he, with a particular gesture, does something that just essentially cuts to the point. And really illuminates what’s wrong, or what his idea is about it. When he does it…it usually seems like it happens so quickly. So that always surprised me, even until now.
JT: What’s the status of the effort to make the film publicly available in China?
AK: There’s pretty much no possibility of it being distributed in any official way, in official theaters. Probably even in museums, art galleries…to openly make it available, if you’re a Chinese citizen…you’re essentially putting your establishment at risk, and yourself at risk. How many people are going to end up doing that? We’ll see… The same way people get Weiwei’s films…underground distribution, there’s obviously tons of bootlegging. Then there are also illegal downloads, BitTorrent, all that stuff. I’m pretty sure that’s how this movie is going to come out. And I welcome that. Because that is the only way for it to be distributed in China. Everyday on twitter, there are people in Chinese who are tweeting, “How can I see this film?” And also “How can I find the download link?” Which makes me really happy. Because it means it has not been bootlegged just yet. And I didn’t want it to be bootlegged before the theatrical release, just because I wanted to feel like I had control of it. And that way we could have a shot at having a theatrical release. But I think when the time comes, I don’t think I’m really going to have to do much work to get it out. Because I think there’s a lot of interest. And then how people decide to share it, I think it’ll end up being mostly private viewings and sharing and downloads. Maybe they’ll be house party type things… I would love to be wrong about this, but I don’t think you’re ever going to read that a particular event or venue publicly showed it.
JT: What is the ultimate impact you hope the film might have, either on the audience members who see it, or, if enough people see it, the American, or Chinese or global cultures on a broader scale?
AK: I don’t think it really promotes any one particular, “Now let’s support this legislation or sign this petition or ask for this thing to happen.” Except, if anything, maybe that people will be concerned about Ai Weiwei’s particular plight. I think the bigger thing it’s talking about is individual responsibility. The idea that people can make a difference if you, first of all, have the courage to take that first step, to open your mouth. I think so much of censorship actually operates as self-censorship. People assume that they can’t get something done. You assume that something is not going to be publishable in China. You assume that something can’t be changed in the US. So you don’t say it to begin with. I think that Weiwei is the great example to put everyone in their place about that… The very basic thing is you have that freedom of expression in your own mind and in your own heart. Because that’s what I think the movie is really about.
Filed under: LiC Interview