If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold sits down with director Alison Klayman to discuss Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, her documentary about the Chinese artist and outspoken social activist.
During the making of her documentary portrait Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, first-time director Alison Klayman gained unprecedented access into the life of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Throughout the filmmaking, Ai came into continuous conflict with the Chinese government as authorities shut down his personal blog, beat him so badly he had to have surgery, bulldozed his newly constructed studio, and detained the artist for three months to interrogate him. The artist has critiqued China’s oppressive rule through photographs of his middle finger flipping off Tiananmen Square, pictures of him dropping and shattering a Neolithic pot (demonstrating the need to break from culture and tradition), and poignant memorials for the more than 5,000 schoolchildren killed in carelessly constructed government buildings in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai’s work strives against an environment of strict censorship, using every available resource to get the public involved, including Twitter.
Klayman’s film frequently depicts the artist in the comfort of his home where he lives with dozens of cats, one of which opens doors by leaping up to a handle and pressing it downward. Ai notes that if he hadn’t met this one cat, he would never have known cats could open doors at all. This metaphor captures the artist’s project succinctly: it takes only one person (or, in this case, a feline) to defy expectations, to challenge the system.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold This is your first film. I understand you were working as a journalist previously. What inspired you to make this documentary? Were you a fan of Ai Weiwei’s work previously?
Alison Klayman I first heard about Ai Weiwei at almost the same time as I first met him and then started filming him. I was already living in Beijing working as a journalist. In 2008, my roommate curated an exhibition of his photographs for a local gallery. These were actually the photographs from the decade Ai lived in New York, the 80’s, and you see them in my film, so you get a sense of how awesome they are. As an American and as a History student, getting to look through all those photos was my great introduction to Ai Weiwei. I got pretty lucky soon after that, when my roommate let me know the show could use a video to go with it, because there was so much more of a story to tell than [could be expressed] just with photos on the wall. So this need for a video was an exciting creative opportunity for me. I came with the gallery team and was filming, waiting for Ai Weiwei to come into the office, and when he did, they let him know I was going to make a video for the show.
AJG And he was OK with that—he doesn’t mind being filmed?
AK I think he was already so used to that, to having people around filming him for various projects. I always wonder if there was a time when having a camera around freaked him out. I feel like my subjects often change when the camera goes on. He didn’t do that.
AJG Right, they become self-conscious …
AK Yes, but he didn’t. I know I get that way. If there was a camera here right now, I would be super vain about it. But he wasn’t. So from these New York photos I was really interested in him, and the little bit I knew was that he had a controversial blog—I knew that he spoke out about the Olympics—and in meeting him he immediately he spoke to me about China. I realized I had probably never talked to a Chinese person like that; I hadn’t had that type of conversation before. On top of this he has great charisma and a good sense of humor. I really wanted to know more. We talked about censorship, and issues with his blog, and the earthquake campaign he was really passionate about at the time. I knew I wasn’t going to get to put these things into the New York photographs exhibit, and I told him I really wanted to follow up with him, because I felt as though he deserved a much closer look. And I learned over the next year just how famous he was in the art world, how he was covered a lot in the news. But that made me think even more that it was important to do something about him that was more personal and intimate. Figuring out what Ai Weiwei is really about—is he fake? That’s a big question. Is he really just a self-promoter? I knew the film would involve issues of censorship and speech, but I didn’t think it would be a movie about a free speech crusader. That had to be shown to me.
AJG So you found Ai Weiwei to be an authentic personage?
AK Yeah. Well, I do think he has an interesting relationship to the truth sometimes. He might say something in an interview that seems contradictory—as though he is just attempting to be provocative. But the overall mission of what he’s doing, I think, is very genuinely about these universal values he believes in. He’s pushing for transparency and free expression, and he’s not doing these things in order to be more famous. It’s funny, because people who make that criticism feel like it’s so brilliant—that it’s so clear. But when you actually look into it a little more, it really holds no water. The truth is, Ai could be so much more famous and rich if he were someone who was officially within the system. He could be China’s most famous artist and architect, and that’s not a bad thing to be these days …
AJG As opposed to having such controversy surrounding him and inhibiting him at every turn.
AK Yes. It seems clear to me to that he doesn’t care about his own fame. That’s not to deny that he is incredibly media savvy—an incredibly good promoter, an incredibly effective communicator. He uses Twitter very well, for instance. So it’s not to paper over these things. But again, [there is] the question of authenticity. Gathering all the evidence, that is what his ultimate motivation is—and when he gets notoriety, it’s to use it for that purpose.
AJG A lot of what Ai deals with is in regards to whether the public deserves to know certain things, whether knowledge should be kept from people. In the instance of the earthquake, for example, when the evidence of the student death toll due to shoddy government-built schools was covered up, Ai worked to reveal the shockingly high number of child deaths. Do you think there’s ever a time when the truth is too much for people to handle? Or do you think it’s the duty of people like Ai Weiwei to share with the public anything that can be helpful in educating them?
AK I think that in his own life and certainly in my dealings with him, he has his own sense of privacy. You can see he doesn’t really want people to go interview his mom, and it took some coaxing for me to be able to go and film him with his son. He does have boundaries. So with the idea of transparency, and it being necessary to know about someone’s personal affairs, you can see that not everything is relevant. But the idea of transparency as an ideal for a system—when it has to do with your governmental or judicial system—is important. If you had asked me before this whether transparency was a super important value, I wouldn’t have thought so. But after making the film I see it as a vital ingredient for an effective, operating democracy. It’s also something that we, the United States, haven’t got[ten] perfect, either. If you look at the problems in [our] society, you can pretty much trace them to [places] where the transparency is lacking—whether it’s wondering why fracking fluid should be subject to all these exemptions in the Clean Water Act, or why can’t we know what’s in fracking fluid. Or the fact that there were companies who lobbied to get an exemption from laws that were created for us to know about our environment and what the pollutants were. So all the secrecy is a problem. If we talk about campaign finance and Super PACs, too … one of the biggest problems with our electoral system comes down to the places where things get less transparent.
AJG How effective do you find filmmakers can become as artists who are also dissidents? You mentioned that Ai Weiwei has an interesting relationship to the truth. Some people claim that documentaries can be edited to skew the truth and present it only from a particular perspective. Do you feel your documentary is straightforward—can such a straightforward position even exist?
AK When I embarked on this, I viewed documentary as kind of extension of journalism, just the ultimate long-form journalism. I’m not sure I feel that way anymore, because there is so much room for art in documentary. But I think that first and foremost, [aiming] to bring journalistic standards to documentary is probably how I will continue to make documentaries. I have met many more filmmakers, and I do think it’s really interesting how they play with form and narrative, but I’m a little bit of a purist. There’s part of me that doesn’t want to be confused about what’s real and what’s not. When you’re telling a true story and when people’s lives are at stake, you have to hold the work you’re doing to those standards. At the same time, whether it’s journalism in a short form or a long form, you can’t pretend there isn’t an author—there’s alwaysan author. You try to stay objective, but at some point you make [your own] determinations. I entered into this work without an outline or a script and didn’t set out to prove any exact thing. But once you get to the end, you’ve done a lot of research, so you do make conclusions and choices based on the research. The way I like to see it is, You can trust that I spent several years of my life close to this, had an open mind about it, and made decisions about what was the most essential 90 minutes that you should see about this story and this person. And you do get to be artful; there’s music, and it is also entertainment. I think documentaries should be entertaining. Nobody should have to watch docs for their health. I wanted people to be into the story, but I’m also pretty obsessed with misrepresentations and factual things at the end of the day.
AJG When you were on The Colbert Report, you discussed Ai Weiwei’s imprisonment and mentioned that he “wasn’t calling for an overthrow of the government.” So what do you think he’s calling for?
AK I think he’s calling for a couple of things: for people to exercise their voices, for the country to allow for freedom of expression, but also for people to start with the feeling of freedom of expression in their own minds. What I observed from being in China is that there’s a lot of censorship; I assume every day that things are getting written and then deleted by a censor. But the truth is that when the system really works, a lot of censorship starts from within oneself. You know that you can’t get away with saying something, so you don’t say it—you don’t even bother. And I think that is a dangerous thing, for people to have feelings and thoughts but to know that it’s not possible to articulate them. That’s why I think the Internet is something that can empower people to realize there is a zeitgeist, that there are other people who feel the same way.
I think what Ai is calling for is liberated thinking. And for people to take individual responsibility, to have the courage to act on it. And of course when it comes to the government, he wants to push for more rule of law, more transparency, an independent judiciary. There are all these flaws in the system that he would like to see remedied. But on a basic level, [Ai just wants] a respect for individual rights and individual dignity of life. I think that is kind of the disconnect: in the Chinese government, there’s a lot of lip service paid to the progress of the country. Ai feels that the country cannot be progressing if individual rights aren’t being respected. I think he sees that as a fundamental contradiction.
Truthfully, very few people who are proponents of China really believe all these issues he’s talking about are OK. They don’t disagree with him. But they might assume things are getting better, or feel that they can’t afford to deal with it all. Ai Weiwei is an extreme figure on this scale—he doesn’t want to budge on that at all—and I think you need people like that in a society. Not everyone can be so focused, not everyone can be him. Still, you need that voice. That’s why I think there’s a part of me that’s very optimistic, and believes he will eventually win, because ultimately everyone knows that he’s right. What people are quibbling about are the priorities, or the balance, or they say that he’s just a self-promoter or provocative radical. The sad thing is, things have gotten worse in these areas, even since I was there; most China watchers and human rights activists in China agree that the spaces for free expression and dissent have gotten much smaller. Certainly Ai’s situation has gotten a lot worse, too. I was making a movie about how [his position] is really complicated, because he’s talking about free expression and he’s running into problems, but at the same time, he’s traveling the world, he’s going online, speaking his mind to journalists. I thought that was a delicious tension, and it might subvert the idea that in China you can’t do anything. The problem is, a lot of that attention has played into this view of China—that they’ll kill you if you are acting out, this simplified notion. It was always possible, but Ai was an example that occupied a middle ground, a gray area, where he puts a spotlight on these severe abuses—and yet he himself is not totally a victim of them.
AJG Sure, and you mentioned on The Colbert Report and again today that he has a sense of humor, that he doesn’t necessarily take himself so seriously. Do you think that playfulness, which he exemplifies while photographing himself sticking up his middle finger in Tiananmen Square, or at the White House, is what people respond to? Is he less threatening, too, in this sense?
AK Absolutely, I think that’s part of the reason why he was able to accomplish so much. From the standpoint of the authorities, looking at him, he doesn’t exact fit the mold of a democracy advocate or a Tibetan freedom fighter. He’s an artist. I asked a lot of his peers a few years ago why he wasn’t in jail, and a lot of times people would answer, “because he’s an artist.” At first I didn’t get it, but now I see more what that means. He is a very much a political activist and social commentator, but it’s all [delivered] from the perspective of an artist. And I think that is what this movie is about.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is a film critic based in New York City.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.