Berlin International Film Festival 2012
By Anna Bielak | February 29, 2012
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a documentary portrait of contemporary Chinese artist and political activist — Ai Weiwei. “Who is Ai Weiwei?” asked Lucy Birmingham in one of her articles. According to Chinese authorities, he is a dissident to be watched, one whose inflammatory blog needed to be silenced. But to others, the Chinese conceptual artist, architect, photographer, and curator — loathed and loved for his human rights activism — is the courageous voice needed in today’s repressive China.
Thinking of Ai Weiwei brings to mind the black-and-white image of the middle-finger in his photograph “The Eiffel Tower,” which is being used to promote the “Ai Weiwei — Interlacing” exhibition (currently at Jeu de Paume in France). In the autumn of 2011, Ai Weiwei’s collection of photographs from 1983-1993 was exhibited at Berliner Festspiele. Despite being there at that time, I shamefully missed it.
Two months later, Alison Klayman’s documentary about Ai Weiwei won the Best Documentary Prize at Sundance Film Festival. Planning my winter journey and having Berlinale 2012 in mind, I could not miss this opportunity to talk with Klayman, who came to Europe from New York with her immensely interesting story about the Chinese artist. (Also check out our True/False 2012 review of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.)
Anna Bielak: You filmed for about two years. That is very long period of time. I wonder how many times you wanted to stop and why didn’t you?
Alison Klayman: To be honest, there was not a single moment that I really wanted to stop filming and the reason I finally did it was not because I lost interest in the subject. There is still so much to tell! However, in the middle of 2010 I felt like I already had so much footage that I should finally find the closing shot. The sunflower seeds exhibition seemed to be a good point. Still, there were so many backstories behind the ones I focused on, that resigning from them was a really tough decision. I wanted to explain to the viewers a little bit about Ai Weiwei’s art, a bit about his activism and family life… So many things were all around me – waiting to be seen. Ironically, just a month after I stopped shooting and started working with my editor, Ai Weiwei’s art studio in Shaghai had been smashed up. I left New York and stopped the post-production process and went back to China once more. Now I feel like the film has been in a constant state of change.
A.B.: You had a great relationship with Ai Weiwei. You were standing behind his back when he was tweeting, you were in hospital with him after his operation. How did you achieve that stage of intimacy?
A.K.: Yes, we got along really well, even if it is a challenge to have a long-term relationship with the subject of your film. Yet, I think that Ai Weiwei feels the same sort of dedication that I have, which helps him believe that I am really interested in his life and work. Moreover, I did not go to China for two weeks or so to become his shadow and shoot all of the scenes in a short time. I was coming back and forth, spending time with him when he wanted me around. We went on a few trips together. He liked company. Those trips helped me get closer to him, thanks to the different — much better — atmosphere that we experienced in London, Berlin, New York or Tokyo, cities that are literally very different from Beijing. You mentioned tweeting also, but I would say that filming him during that specific activity was very unproductive. I have seen what he was tweeting about and wanted to talk with him about those things, but after a while I understood that his attitude towards my idea would not lead me anywhere. I discovered much more while observing him as he was talking with or being interviewed by other people.
A.B.: There is a conversation with another journalist which you film from a distance. He was spreading some gossip about a son Ai Weiwei had in the past. It closes him up. Did you know that could happen? Why did you choose not to ask him that question with your own camera?
A.K.: Well, I think that if I would ask him questions like that, the only answer I would get will be: “That’s none of your business!” Moreover, I didn’t need to ask about that, because I already knew all of that… Ai Weiwei obviously has personal issues that are very important parts of his life. Making him a regular human was a challenge. Showing him — as a father, portraying his evolution in fatherhood was very essential at some point — yet, extremely tough as well. Moreover, I was conscious that going too far and too deep into some subjects was not linked with getting more answers. It could also affect too many other people around him, and that was unnecessary.
A.B.: Still, there is a great moment in the documentary when you are filming Ai Weiwei’s mother. Could you tell me something more about your relationship with her?
A.K.: Being with Ai Weiwei often, I witnessed many situations when some other journalists came over and asked Ai Weiwei if they could interview his mother. His usual response was: “No!” I was lucky to be at his house when his mother came to visit him. At that point I was pretty sure that any possibilities to meet her would hardly exist. However, when we started to talk, she told me a lot about living with Ai Weiwei in Western China where her husband was cleaning toilets to earn money for them. I was astonished by her honesty and shocked at the same time because of the fact that in the middle of our conversation her emotions overwhelmed her and she started to cry. We were sitting across the table from each other. I was constantly filming, thinking that if she or Ai Weiwei told me later to erase it, I would do so without hesitation. Yet, at times like these — so intense, perfect to be filmed — it is so hard to turn the camera off…
A.B.: Ai Weiwei does not hesitate in speaking loudly about politics in China. He has constant problems with the Chinese government though. Did you have any problems while you were filming him? Do you now, since your film has won Sundance Prize for Best Documentary and started travelling around the world?
A.K.: I was never put on the Chinese ministry’s radar while I was travelling to Asia, because nobody considered me as an important person. I was a freelancer, but I did not have any connections with the BBC or Times. Whenever I went there, I had my credentials renewed. No one ever asked me about my particular plans or acquaintance with Ai Weiwei. I had some tapes with me, but who would want to watch them? I did not feel any pressure… There was only one situation when my recordings had been taken away and I had been pushed away from Ai Weiwei by authorities. Hitherto, I have been much more concerned about the Chinese residences who were working with me at that time rather than about myself. I still think that they risked much more than I ever did. Since Ai Weiwei’s detention I went back to China once. Now I am waiting for a new visa and will hopefully get one without any problems.
A.B.: Where does the line between being a reporter and being a filmmaker lie? Where is this creation of yours?
A.K.: The feeling of being a filmmaker gave me the freedom to do everything by myself and to decide about the final shape of the film. I had as much time to think about every single shot as I needed. That helps me to be creative and I am sure that I had more time than journalists usually have when they are doing pieces for radio or television. Editors give you two or three hundred words. One cannot go beyond that, even if one has much more to tell. Well, to be honest — the ninety minutes of footage in this film was not enough for me either… [laughs] Still, I believe that I had much more fun shooting this than I could have doing a television piece. What was very important in the end was feeling that I was doing it for myself.
A.B.: You present many forms of social media in the film. How did you prepare to put them into cinematic images?
A.K.: Actually, I worked with a graphic team from Beijing. They did a great job helping me with Ai Weiwei’s Chinese tweets that appear in the film. Yet, mixing them with the images they were never meant to become decorative elements. I did not want to overdo anything, I rather wanted to bring onto the screen some kind of groovy experience of watching what was happening on Twitter in China at that specific time. I wanted it to be watchable, first of all. I think the hardest part of watching films is reading and there are so many written lines on the screen — plus subtitles — that I was always trying to keep things as simple as possible.
A.B.: At the end of the film you also put the written sequence telling that Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a part of bigger audiovisual project. Did you consider putting your film online like many other independent filmmakers do nowadays?
A.K.: I think that putting the film online would be the only way for Chinese people to watch it… Yet, I think that we will try to show the film in the mainstream first; we are going to travel with it from one festival to the next, all over the world. I see value in that, even if I feel the film belongs to the internet community. I believe that it’s very essence is to show Ai Weiwei’s story to people who may not have heard about it. I want to give the bigger audience the possibility to know a little about the artist, his life and political views. Eventually the film will find its place on some internet platforms.
A.B.: During closing sequence we heard Ai Weiwei singing. He cannot talk to press anymore…
A.K.: It was a very emotional experience — watching him at the time he came out of prison. I saw a broken man there… However, I do not believe that fundamentally he changed as a person. Just the conditions he is in right now are slightly different than before. He cannot take interviews for a while, talk to the press, or be a politically active person. Yet, we all know what we see and why it all happened. At the same time we all remember what we saw during the last ninety minutes. The song we are hearing is rather a question: What do you think is going to happen in the future?