After graduating from Brown University in 2006, Alison Klayman headed to Beijing with little more than a desire to learn Mandarin and to work as a journalist. Although she modestly describes her path to filmmaker as “a coincidence,” it’s the hallmark of a savvy reporter that she knew a good story when she found one.
That story is Ai Weiwei, the avant-garde artist and political dissident who is far more famous in China than in the West. Ai’s profile is about to increase here, thanks to Klayman’s documentary, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” opening Friday.
After a series of odd jobs in Beijing, Klayman, who became fluent in Mandarin, produced radio and television features for NPR, PBS, and AP Television. A friend in 2008 asked her to make a short video to accompany a gallery show of Ai’s New York photography. Armed with her first video camera, she started filming him at his Beijing studio/home just as his blogging-as-art-and-protest was reaching millions and turning him into an underground cultural icon. Klayman says being “young and unestablished” helped her plunge in without knowing where her film was headed, and helped forge a bond with Ai.
“He was an example for me. He was confused about his career in his mid-50s. He’s now a symbol for the power of social media, but he didn’t use a computer until 2005. It’s a reminder that anyone can remake themselves,” says Klayman, 27, in Boston earlier this year for the New England premiere of “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” at the Independent Film Festival.
As she tracked Ai Weiwei for two years, her film emerged as a portrait of contemporary China. Ai Weiwei’s blogging rose to prominence in 2008 when, after helping design Beijing’s iconic “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium, he denounced Beijing’s hosting of the Olympic Games as propaganda. His provocative, often witty dispatches, coupled with his portly, bearded appearance, added to his appeal as an underground icon. His blogging increased with his criticism of China’s culpability in the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake in which 5,000 schoolchildren died due to shoddy government building construction. Klayman’s camera rolled as government authorities shut down Ai’s blog, allegedly beat him up (then suggested it was he who caused his injuries), and bulldozed his newly built studio. During the film’s editing process in 2011, the government held Ai in a secret location for 81 days, then placed him under house arrest for a year and charged him with “economic crimes.” A few weeks ago, on June 22, his bail was lifted — he’s back in his Beijing studio — but he still is not allowed to leave China or have access to his passport.
Approximately 25 of Ai’s works will be on display for the first time in North America at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., from Oct. 4 to Feb. 24, 2013. It’s not known whether the artist will be cleared to travel by then. Already, though, Ai’s bronze sculpture “Zodiac Heads/Circle of Animals,” based on Qing dynasty carvings, is on display surrounding the Hirshhorn’s outdoor fountain. Another sculpture, “Fragments,” at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, repurposes ancient ironwood beams from Qing dynasty temples and homes that were destroyed in China over the past 20 years.
“You don’t always get political dissidents who are charismatic and fascinating to look at. These guys are often beloved but tobacco-stained characters,” says Evan Osnos, the New Yorker staffer who profiled Ai in 2010 and who met Klayman during that time. Osnos says Klayman’s film is significant because “Ai Weiwei became important just as the Internet was beginning to play a significant role in Chinese life.” Even before he took to Twitter, Ai’s art exhibits, such as his millions of porcelain sunflower seeds at London’s Tate Gallery in 2010, pushed the idea that “the individual voice and individual identity can be meaningful,” Osnos says. “That’s a radical idea in the context of Chinese history.”
Klayman says Ai “is someone who’s always been interested in communication, documentation, and conversation. The Internet gave him a megaphone. . . . His sense of humor allowed him to have a bigger following because he’s not a dry, political reformer. It’s much more fun than that because he’s an artist.
“Before his blog was shut down, he had easy access to the majority of Internet users in China; we’re talking hundreds of millions of people,” she says. “After that, he had to rely on Twitter, which is smaller and is within China’s sanctioned social media sphere. When he’s talking about school construction and children, he’s got waitresses and mothers, all kinds of people who are drawn to what he’s talking about and making public . . . that’s when it took off.”
Klayman, a native of Philadelphia, describes Ai Weiwei’s confrontations with Chinese authorities as “a chess game of action, reaction.”
“I think the Chinese government wrote its role into the story as much as Ai did by speaking his mind. They moved the story forward,” she says. “Ai Weiwei reached this level of fame because of his provocative politics but I would argue that it was government’s reaction that made it a headline story.”
Klayman says the turning point in her understanding of Ai’s impact came in 2009 when she followed him to Germany for the opening of his major installation about the earthquake — “So Sorry,” which consisted of 5,000 multicolored children’s backpacks — at Munich’s Haus der Kunst museum. “That, for me, was an eye opener; to see how high-profile he was. I had an academic understanding, but it took being out of the context of his home studio in Beijing to see it, and to see a show of that magnitude . . . that trip was a big life experience for me. I could do a whole movie about every one of his shows.”
The immediacy of her footage, Klayman says, was just a case of being in the right place at the right time. But Klayman concedes that she was able to capture moments such as Ai’s interrogation by police because of old-fashioned legwork. “He was open about access but my project wasn’t a focal point in his planning. . . . I had to be on top of things. The only area I had to push was his personal life,” she says. “One year into [filming] I started interviewing his peers and family. I didn’t know at the beginning that that was going to be a big part of it. But his biography goes along the contours of Chinese history.”
Besides including footage of his mother and his young son, the film documents Ai and his father, the esteemed poet Ai Qing, who knew persecution from both sides of the political spectrum. Ai Qing was jailed in the 1930s by anti-Communist forces, then later exiled by Communist leader Mao Zedong.
Osnos lauded Klayman’s tenacity. “She had no idea where the story was going but she knew she was onto something electrifying,” he says. “I’m sure there were times when she thought this would be of no interest to people abroad but she also had to wonder if it would imperil her ability to work in a place that she loves.”
Despite Ai’s high profile and confrontations with police, Klayman says she never felt in danger. “The whole point of the trip to the police station to file the complaints was to document it. I was never the only camera; he had his own videographers, a parade of cameras. It was tense. I was stopped by police only once [during her two years of filming]. They confiscated the tapes but I was constantly changing out my tapes — which was a trick Ai told me — so I didn’t miss much,” she says.
To Westerners for whom Twitter feeds often mean celebrity gossip and flash mobs, it will be revealing, Klayman hopes, to experience how social media serves a society “without a free press and an independent judiciary.” Ai Weiwei’s acts against censorship “represent so many who take it upon themselves to be a free press. Within the realm of underground Chinese documentary film, human rights lawyers are the stars. Ai Weiwei is an exceptional figure but so many operating in this world are average people with no protections and just acting out of conviction.”
Of course, censorship means that few Chinese citizens will get to see “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.”
“I think the chances of it being released in China are nonexistent,” says Osnos.
“The best we can hope for is online dissemination of the film,” says Klayman. Many Chinese living abroad have come up to me at screenings to say ‘thank you.’ I’m looking forward to a time when you can go to a DVD shop in Beijing and find it. That will be the best day.”Loren King can be reached at