With his pudgy frame and eccentric manner, Ai Weiwei is hard to see as a threat — but that's how the Chinese government has labeled him. The 55-year-old Beijing artist is best known in this country for helping design the "bird's nest" stadium that housed the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and he co-designed a reflecting pool for this summer's London games.
When Ai put together a blog and a series of underground documentaries that criticized his government's handling of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, he started a long, dangerous tug of war. Ai declared that the "tofu construction" of the region's schools contributed to the deaths of thousands of children, and that little had been done to help their grieving families. His criticisms led to the authorities beating him, and detaining him for 81 days in 2011. He just lost his appeal of the state's $2.4 million tax-evasion case against him. His passport has been revoked. But he continues to speak out, doing so recently in a July column for the British paper The Guardian.
Freshman documentarian Alison Klayman, who followed Ai for nearly four years, vividly captures his struggles in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Without being dogmatic or dry (few documentaries feature door-opening cats), the film details the impact of his art and the risks of his activism. (It opens Friday in Kansas City.) Speaking to The Pitch by phone from New York, Klayman recalls the difficulties of assembling a movie about a man whose story is far from complete.
The Pitch: When you went to Beijing in 2006, you didn't intend to make a film about a dissident artist.
Klayman: I definitely did not have any plans or awareness of who Ai Weiwei was. I really think that I did have an aspiration to do good journalism, good documentary work. But I saw that as pretty far off from my abilities at that exact moment. I didn't have a China background, I was fresh out of school, and I also recognized that I needed to be kind of brought up to speed. I also didn't even know if I was going to stay in China. I went there on a five-month trip after college [Brown University]. If China didn't work out, I was going to go somewhere else.
Did you have any trouble getting the footage out of China?
It was certainly something I had to make a plan for, being familiar enough and wary enough of the fact that I may run into a challenge. We backed up the footage on two separate hard drives that were identical. I had over 200 tapes, and I kind of split them up between a couple of people I knew who were traveling back to the U.S. at the time, so that I wasn't always traveling with all my equipment and 200 tapes, which I thought might raise some eyebrows.
But to be totally honest, the entire time I was based in China — four years, coming and going or traveling in the country — I never once had my equipment searched at the airport. Again, I didn't take it for granted that it wouldn't happen to me, but the truth is that it never did.
Ai seems to taunt the government throughout the film. Through Twitter, he invites his fans to meet him at a café after filing a complaint with regional police, who had beaten him the year before.
That was part of a long list of things about Ai Weiwei and his approach and the people who sort of shared his outlook and his tactics. I thought it would be really interesting to an international audience, the idea that transparency is a vital sort of value that needs to be promoted in China.
Part of the way an advocate of transparency is going to protect himself is to be out in the open. It showed me part of his boldness but also showed me this whole community that does take to this kind of openness, keeping this information out there as sort of a way of life.
Speaking of that, I was struck by how freely he discussed how his son was born. He candidly admits that his wife was hurt because the child was born out of wedlock.
For me, that was an important part of the story to have in, with the right balance and emphasis. His son is an incredibly important part of his life, perhaps the most important part of his life. He was a new father, and that has changed him over the last few years. But also, this is a transparency advocate, who lives his life very openly. Does he have a private side? I do think the answer is yes, but at the same time, the way that he answers those questions — I thought that was a thing that an audience would want to see.
You also arrived at a key moment in his life. At any point, did you ever think, "I'll never be able to finish this," because he was detained for part of the time the film was made?
I was already actively in the process of editing in New York at the time that he was detained. For me, it became the scariest part of this entire process. A lot of people say, "Were you scared in China?" The scariest part was those 81 days, when I actually was in New York, because it was such a dark time. There was so little information.
It raised the stakes for the film. The film really ends, I think, at the moment when the chapter kind of ended. I feel like what's been happening since he's been released is sort of best covered by journalism because, in terms of documentaries, it'd be hard to say what the real meaning is. But everything that happened from 2008 till 2011 really seems like a distinct chapter in his life.