Alison Klayman’s first feature documentary offers a rare glance into the inner workings of Ai Weiwei’s artworks and his everyday life.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a documentary from first time director Alison Klayman. Her film creates a striking and complex portrait of one of the most inspirational and brave figures in the art world today. Amidst a constant threat of censorship and surveillance, Ai Weiwei continues to be vigilant in his quest for transparency within China’s officialdom and continues to create art that provokes and challenges us to question the relationship with our surroundings.
Klayman’s portrait is brave in itself, as it not only presents the artist as an inspirational provocateur, but also as an unashamed self-promoter. Klayman’s camera, like Ai Weiwei’s art, invites us to question the relationship to the truth – to Ai Weiwei as a genuine activist-artist, a cult brand of individualism, or maybe both. She also manages to capture moments of real personal intimacy. This film is not only a fantastic piece of filmmaking, it is an important window into Ai Weiwei’s mind, a valuable documentation of his work and a wake up call to stand firm for who you are and what you believe in. Important, creative and inspirational viewing.
How did you first meet Ai Weiwei and how did the project begin? I went to China after I graduated from University, and in 2008 I managed to get a journalist visa. My roommate in Beijing was curating a show of his for a local gallery. The show was very autobiographical, his New York photographs from the 1980s, and they had been lying around the house for months. She suggested that the show would benefit from a video into the story of that time and the way that photography and documentation play a part in his art. It was great because the opportunity was presented to both of us; it was like “Ai Weiwei here is Alison she’s going to make a video about you. Alison here is Ai Weiwei, make a video about him.” That was how it started.
How did the film develop from what started out as documenting his show, to such an intimate portrait? It happened slowly. It took 3 years from the start of filming to when the movie was finished, but it just continued on from the show and I had persistence. He’s that kind of open person that if you approach it right he will let you be there. When we were filming for the show, I had so much footage that was completely irrelevant to the video about his time in New York, but tonnes of stuff about politics and his upcoming earthquake campaign that he was getting really excited about, and questions about his blog such as “why are you not in jail?” Part of me was immediately curious about him and he was a really charismatic figure. I also had this great material and, at least in a journalistic sense, I had to follow up on the earthquake campaign. It developed as I showed interest in the things that interested him, both in art and in his commentary on society. The thing I had to work hardest for were those very private moments, which created interesting questions for me. This guy promotes transparency and lives so much of his life online, so is there another side to him and does he have a private life? He is very protective about his family so I had to work pretty hard, or I just lucked out. The fact that his mum visited that one day, that was luck.
How important do you think his message is for young people in China? I think his message is incredibly relevant and vital for China now and also frankly for young people and the whole world, because these are universal values that we can’t take for granted. It’s not just in China that we have to worry about transparency or freedom of expression or the independence of the judiciary, it’s relevant all over. I think I didn’t know what his message was when I started and then I didn’t know how much of what he was doing was genuine you know because he is very complex and a big question is ‘what is his relationship to the truth?’ He’s a professed admirer of Warhol and Duchamp, and his company is called Fake Design and he deals with the fake and the real. So to try and figure him out first of all I had to spend as much time as possible and see him with as many different people in different contexts. It took me all this time to get it, to figure out why he’s always talking about the internet, but it all started to come together for me in the edit. At the same time he can be a trickster and an unreliable narrator, he is also very coherent in what he’s trying to do and say.
The power of online communication comes across very strongly in the film… There are certainly things to be wary about with these tools, but he’s showing the positive power and possibilities of social media. I think Twitter means something particular in China that it may not necessarily mean to us here because it is a non-censored version of something that does exist. Micro blogging is huge in China, but it’s censored. To have Twitter as this uncensored version means that it can be used in a different way. Also the difference is that an artist is doing it. It’s not to say that he’s not also an activist, because I think he is an organizer and a public intellectual and a political commentator, but it all actually comes from his self identification and what he believes an artist’s role should be and that’s why ever since doing this film I’m really excited about the power not just of the Internet, but of art and culture and the power of how that can get through to us in a way that simple rhetoric just can’t.
Ai Weiwei’s art often reflects a balance between criticism and a celebration of what is possible against the odds. Would you say that your film tries to do the same? Absolutely. Ai Weiwei believes that “to be patriotic is to question,” and in this way it is definitely not an anti-China film. I never saw it as a movie about what people can’t do; it’s a movie about what is possible. It’s not about censorship; it’s about freedom of expression. It’s not about how someone is silenced; it’s about how someone is using their voice. It shows the danger he faces, but also looks at how much he is doing, travelling freely, going online, inspiring people, and they are responding to what he’s talking about. From the outside China may seem like this monolithic place, but there is a lot of questioning happening, and all of that is being hastened and reaffirmed by social media in a way that when you don’t have a free society and a free press, then social media takes on a completely new and radical role.
Ai Wei Wei Never Sorry is now showing at selected UK cinemas.
Text: Joe Cohen