By Andrea Gronvall

The Gronvall Files: Director Alison Klayman On Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

There are headlines China’s leaders like to see, such as coverage of Chinese athletes racking up gold medals at the XXX Olympiad, or Beijing’s Dalian Wanda Group snapping up American movie screens with its purchase of the AMC Entertainment theater chain. Then there are the newsmakers that make China’s ruling technocrats nervous, such as legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who sought refuge in the American Embassy in Beijing before getting his government’s permission to leave to study the in U.S., and the artist Ai Weiwei, the subject of a new documentary from IFC Films, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.

Acclaimed internationally for sculptures and installations that have been exhibited in western cities from Munich to London to New York, to name a few, Weiwei is also a culture hero to millions of Chinese, not only for his trenchant and yet often playful art works, but also for his populism and activism, which he has advanced through blogging and social media like Twitter. His protests against injustice, corruption, and propaganda (he publicly criticized the 2008 Beijing Olympics) occasionally landed him in hot water with authorities (he was beaten up and seriously injured in Chengdu), and in 2011 led to an 81-day-long government detention.

In 2008, Alison Klayman, then 24, an American freelancing as a journalist in Beijing, met Weiwei and began filming a 20-minute video to accompany one of his art shows. Before long, the project developed into a feature documentary, and she followed him on his travels within and beyond China for the next two years. The affinity that developed between them might be attributed to a shared sensibility, openness, and curiosity, but perhaps also to a social activism born of their individual family stories. Weiwei and his father, the modernist poet Ai Qing, survived the disgrace, exile, and punishment intellectuals suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Klayman is the first journalist in a family of lawyers with a pronounced labor rights history, and her mother, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, broke barriers by becoming the first woman to graduate from Columbia University. It is impossible to watch Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and not be impressed by the heart, attitude, confidence, resourcefulness, and bravery of its charismatic subject—characteristics shared by his enterprising young director. On a swing through Chicago Klayman spoke with me about her journey to documenting the larger-than- life figure who ranks high among the greatest living artists.     

Andrea Gronvall:  When you were first going to China, you were planning just a five-month trip with friends. Were your parents supportive when you decided to learn Mandarin and work as a journalist in Beijing?

Alison Klayman:  Going to China was certainly an adventure, especially since I had to no background in China. They came to visit me maybe four months in, and that was when I said to them, “You know, I think I’m going to stay.” But Beijing is an incredibly cosmopolitan city compared to their old images of China, and they were impressed with how I could already speak enough Mandarin to get us in cabs, and order food, and stuff like that. They’ve always been incredibly supportive, although there were times they wondered, “Are you sure you’re going to be able to find a job?” I just thought that in China, at the worst you could always teach English, which I never had to do. For journalism, it’s one of the few places where you could make a living freelancing, if there was going to be any interest.

AG:  Before you did that, you worked at a number of odd jobs. What was your oddest job in Beijing before you got accredited as a journalist working in radio?

AK:  I think the funniest job was working for a German artist named Wolfgang Stiller, making C-class dummies for a movie called John Rabe, which was about Nanjing in World War II; Steve Buscemi was in it. We built about 50 dead bodies—men, women, and children. C-class dummies means they’re not for close-ups; they’re for wider shots, and shown strewn about, crushed by tanks, whatever. We weren’t an official props company, but he was an artist who did a lot of sculpture, and so we’d make heads, hands, feet, and then add them to foam bodies. And after so much counting, making sure we had enough pairs of hands and enough pairs of feet, I was like, I’m going to have dreams about body parts!

But I think the job I turned down to do that was even funnier, which was arranging an event in Harbin, that was going to be an ice ballet of luxury cars; it was a weekend event designed to encourage rich people to buy these SUVs. But I thought, I don’t really believe in that very much, so I guess I’d rather do the dummies job.

AG:  So, once you signed on to make a film about Weiwei, you followed him around for two years; you shot over 200 hours of video; you traveled to seven countries, eleven cities. And you brought it in for, what, about $500,000?

AK:  Yeah–under a million, yeah.

AG:  And you got funding in part from Agnes Gund from New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Given the travel budget alone, where else did you get funding from, and how did you arrange it?

AK:  First of all, I was living in Beijing, and because I shot most of the film, that side of it was very low-cost. So travel was really almost the only expense that we had, but he traveled a lot and I felt that footage was really important. And I had a fiscal sponsor in New York, The Hazen Polsky Foundation. They support films about art and artists; their last film before mine was Herb and Dorothy, about two regular folks who collected art in their little New York apartment. But I was pretty much off the radar before I came back to New York, and started meeting people. And then all of a sudden Weiwei was detained, and it became a very large story, and I was on The Colbert Report and doing a lot of press—more about Weiwei’s story, less about the film, because the film wasn’t even finished.

AG:  While you were doing that, did you ever feel the lines between journalism and activism were getting blurred? Or to put it another way:  because of the close working relationship you had developed with Weiwei, was it ever hard to keep your objectivity?

AK:  I think that was sort of a game changer when that happened. I was incredibly uncomfortable talking about his situation, coming on as Alison Klayman, who has this background. I feel that one of the most important things about doing the film the way I did was being off the radar. Even though I was an accredited journalist, I was not accredited with the BBC or New York Times; I wasn’t high profile. I felt that this was really important, to not be important. But I also felt that it was important to speak out against something that was incredibly and very clearly unjust. I didn’t know that it was going to be an 81-day detention.

AG:  At what time during post-production did you realize you would have to hold off completing the film until the aftermath of Weiwei’s detention?

AK:  In the first probably week or two, the problem was we were sort of full steam ahead:  Weiwei was supposed to come to New York at the beginning of May for the installation of his Zodiac Heads at Grand Army Plaza and we wanted to show that. So as you can imagine, we sort of put the breaks on everything. After he was detained it was really hard to work on the film; then finally my editor and I started watching the footage again, and I was just crying over the happy scenes, wondering what is Weiwei eating now, what is he sleeping on. At some point—because we didn’t know if the detention was going to be years and years—we realized that we had to go forward, because quite frankly this film could do good for raising awareness, and also, when you are so powerless it feels like the only thing you can do is to share his story.

AG:  There are a lot of tense moments in your film, like the sequence in the Chengdu police station, where the cops want your footage. How did you pull off that tape switch, without them being suspicious? And were there other close calls?

AK:  In Beijing, there was never any of that kind of conflict. All of the close calls were in Chengdu; it was a couple of different trips, and it was because we were in seats of authority. In that one I was able to film about 30 minutes, 40 minutes, and then the special cops who speak English came, and said, we want to see your I.D. I said that I left it in the car—which was true–and they told me to go get it. So I brought the camera with me, and I switched the tape. And there were other instances where they wanted to confiscate a tape, and I managed to switch it right before they came to take it. You learned to switch tapes frequently.

I think the film adds punctuation to a period in Weiwei’s life:  the preceding few years of a rapid rise in his career; his activism; his clashes with the government. I also think it provides a valuable lesson in showing a little bit about modern China:  this is how it is.

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“When Bay keeps these absurd plot-gears spinning, he’s displaying his skill as a slick, professional entertainer. But then there are the images of motion—I hesitate to say, of things in motion, because it’s not clear how many things there are in the movie, instead of mere digital simulations of things. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that there’s a car chase through London, seen from the level of tires, that could have gone on for an hour, um, tirelessly. What matters is that the defenestrated Cade saves himself by leaping from drone to drone in midair like a frog skipping among lotus pads; that he and Vivian slide along the colossal, polished expanses of sharply tilting age-old fields of metal like luge Olympians. What matters is that, when this heroic duo find themselves thrust out into the void of inner space from a collapsing planet, it has a terrifyingly vast emptiness that Bay doesn’t dare hold for more than an instant lest he become the nightmare-master. What matters is that the enormous thing hurtling toward Earth is composed in a fanatical detail that would repay slow-motion viewing with near-geological patience. Bay has an authentic sense of the gigantic; beside the playful enormity of his Transformerized universe, the ostensibly heroic dimensions of Ridley Scott’s and Christopher Nolan’s massive visions seem like petulant vanities.”
~ Michael Bay Gives Richard Brody A Tingle

How do you see film evolving in this age of Netflix?

I thought the swing would be quicker and more violent. There have been two landmark moments in the history of French film. First in 1946, with the creation of the CNC under the aegis of Malraux. He saved French cinema by establishing the advance on receipts and support fund mechanisms. We’re all children of this political invention. Americans think that the State gives money to French films, but they’re wrong. Through this system, films fund themselves!

The other great turning point came by the hand of Jack Lang in the 1980s, after the creation of Canal+. While television was getting ready to become the nemesis of film, he created the decoder, and a specific broadcasting space between film and television, using new investments for film. That once again saved French film.

These political decisions are important. We’re once again facing big change. If our political masters don’t take control of the situation and new stakeholders like Netflix, Google and Amazon, we’re headed for disaster. We need to create obligations for Internet service providers. They can’t always be against film. They used to allow piracy, but now that they’ve become producers themselves, they’re starting to see things in a different light. This is a moment of transition, a strong political act needs to be put forward. And it can’t just be at national level, it has to happen at European level.

Filmmaker Cédric Klapisch