Creator Q&A: Alison Klayman and Ai Weiwei documentary "Never Sorry"
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Part international star, part dissident artist, and part ultimate prankster, Beijing-born activist Ai Weiwei has gained notoriety as one of China’s most fierce internal critics, leveraging the internet as a tool for igniting underground social movements, while loudly championing the necessity for political transparency and accountability.
Filmmaker Alison Klayman, at last count, has been with him through two years, seven countries, and eleven cities. She’s witnessed his rise to fame as China moves increasingly into the global spotlight, and has been given unprecedented access to his private life. Her full-length documentary, currently in the works, will feature interviews with his closest friends, his family members, and the first ever in-depth glimpse at the creative process behind his highly controversial, hugely important, body of work.
We recently caught up with Allison for a quick Q&A. You can check out her answers, below, and support her ongoing project here.
When did you first realize that a documentary on Ai Weiwei’s life was something you wanted to make? What about his life and work compelled you?
I began filming Weiwei in late 2008 for a short film in conjunction with his exhibition, ‘Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983 -1993’ at Beijing’s Three Shadows Photography Art Centre. The resulting short can be viewed here. He really enjoyed the piece, so when I started coming around more frequently, he was open to continued filming and eventually producing a feature-length documentary.
As I mentioned in my Kickstarter video, I didn’t know a lot about who Ai Weiwei was when I began filming him. I was fascinated by the stories from his years in New York, but I quickly realized that the unfolding events of his life were becoming more dramatic by the day. There is always something new with him. He can quickly distill what is vitally important to his society, and is guided by courage and wisdom developed through a lifetime of experiences. More importantly, he is just so charismatic I knew anyone could watch a 90-minute film on him.
After spending so much time so closely with him, what was the one characteristic about him that really surprised you?
I think that his consistency is what surprised me. The sum of all of his disparate works, writings and interviews really does have a connecting thread. Finding old interviews or meeting old friends showed me that actually he has held many of his current values for a very long time.
Has your position on the role of activism and art changed since meeting him? Do you think the two (art/activism) belong to each other?
I think Weiwei lives his art. People like to talk about his “social sculpture,” and I think it’s true that he likes to set up conditions through his art and then let reality — including politics — play out. I can find many instances in my footage where he expresses the belief that artists must engage with their society, that everything is a result of the political condition and therefore to be conscious and engage with your surroundings in your art is inherently political.
What do you hope audiences will learn from Ai Weiwei’s story?
When I embarked on this project, one of my goals was to deconstruct notions of China as a cultural and political monolith through the lens of Ai Weiwei’s life and art. I also thought in vague terms that it would “increase Weiwei’s base of support around the world.” Now it seems the latter purpose is especially crucial. I think that an intimate film about a larger-than-life figure (who is also currently being held out of contact from the rest of the world) has the power to connect audiences to a distant reality and remote injustices.
Given the dire, and currently unfolding, events — how will you guys progress?
We are incredibly concerned about Weiwei’s dentention and monitor the situation daily. The small Never Sorry team went without much sleep for the first seven days as we tried to grasp the situation as it unfolded in China. Now we are focusing on finishing the film and getting it out to the public. Weiwei is a remarkable individual and a captivating presence on screen- - and one not without his faults. I want to get my film out so more individuals have the opportunity to know Weiwei in the way that I do.
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