Ai Weiwei’s Documentarian on Luck, Dissidence and Steven Colbert: An Interview with Alison Klayman

Since the launch of his incendiary blog in 2005, Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist-cum-social-media-genius, has been raising eyebrows and turning

Filmmaker Alison Klayman with Ai Weiwei. (Ted Alcorn)

Since the launch of his incendiary blog in 2005, Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist-cum-social-media-genius, has been raising eyebrows and turning heads worldwide for his subversive stabs against Beijing’s iron fist. He has launched a sort of neo-cultural revolution in China, breathing new power into the voice of the individual and bringing himself under the wrath of the Chinese government. And thanks to Alison Klayman, the 27 year-old filmmaker whose first documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, hit movie screens nationwide this week, Weiwei might soon be as much of a household name in America as Warhol.

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The Observer caught up with Ms. Klayman this week near her apartment in Morningside Heights. She looks young, and more like a fresh-faced Columbia student on her way to class than a filmmaker who might be on her way to winning an Oscar. But, when she starts talking, it all makes sense: you can tell this girl is serious business, an up-and-coming artist in her own right, and one to keep our eyes on.

Congratulations on the film. How does it feel?

It’s totally wild. I certainly could never have anticipated or expected how it all turned out. With Sundance we felt like we had arrived, and now we get to this point, when the general public can come and see the film in theaters. It’s crazy.

How did you find yourself in this position of being right out of college, stumbling upon this opportunity where you are following and filming Ai Weiwei everywhere?

Well, I think it’s definitely one of those impossible to replicate situations. I went to China after I graduated from Brown in 2006. I went there without having any China background. I didn’t speak Mandarin. And I didn’t really know anyone. But with everything, it’s, like, that intention was there.

That’s pretty ambitious with Mandarin!

I wanted to learn the language, and I thought that that was maybe how I would make it as a journalist, to go abroad and do some kind of foreign correspondence. So, I did a lot of radio journalism, I worked in movies, and I found all kinds of crazy jobs …

What was your weirdest job?

Let’s see. I was a personal assistant to a very, very famous Chinese actress, Liu Yifen, who nobody here has heard of. She was staring in n a Jet Li and Jackie Chan movie. So, I have a lot, a lot of pictures of me with Jackie Chan. And that’s how I learned a lot of my Mandarin, being on set.

So, how did you get to finally meet Ai Weiwei?

My roommate was working at a photography center which was run by a younger artist who had been very influenced by Weiwei, and who had heard of Weiwei’s New York photographs from the ’80s. He got boxes and boxes of negatives of Weiwei’s never-processed [that] totally captured his imagination. So, the studio asked Weiwei to do a show. [My roommate would] bring home these thick binders of contact sheets and I got to flip through them when I was home. Being someone who had spent a lot of time in New York, and thinking about these young Chinese artists here in the 1980s—which is the perfect moment to be nostalgic about New York, with the grit and the protest and the punk—the photos were super, super fascinating.

I had just bought a camera in the fall of 2008 and really wanted to do video work and I was starting on a couple of projects. My roommate said that it would be great to have video to go along with the New York photographs exhibition. I did it totally for spec, nobody paid me; I signed a deal with the gallery that said I could do a 20-minute video and keep my own footage. So, I just showed up one morning, Weiwei came into the office, and the gallery staff said, “This is Allison, she’s going to make a video for the show.”

He didn’t ask for credentials, which is good, because I didn’t have any. The next few weeks filming together, we got along really well. Plus, we were covering a lot of topics, like law and censorship, that didn’t really fit into the film I needed to make for the show. I knew that I had to use the material for something else. He was so fascinating and I wanted to know more about him. Even with his demeanor alone, you just want you watch him. I felt like doing a piece that was more about political stuff about China, and I really wanted to see how that was going to play out.

So, did you say something like, “Look, I want to stay with you and film you?”

It was more that I would always ask to come back the next time. “Is it alright if I come back around the anniversary of the earthquake and see what you guys came up with?” “Oh yeah, you can come.” I thought that a certain project looked interesting, or that I could film something about this or that work.  Sometimes he knew there was a purpose, and sometimes maybe it wasn’t so clear. It wasn’t until sometime in fall 2009, when he introduced me to someone and said, “That’s Allison. She’s going to make a documentary, she has been filming with me for a long time.”

Was he comfortable being filmed, since he’s a sort of auto-documentarian himself?

I think I was really lucky, because he had done so much filming of himself. I never experienced that moment when the camera turned on and you feel someone kind of change. I think he had already gotten past that. Also, I wasn’t working for him and I wasn’t a journalist on a short stint. I lived in Beijing, so I would just come by in my spare time, until it reached the point where I started full-time working on this, because I wanted to go on trips at a moment’s notice with Weiwei. I was learning how impulsive he was. I wanted to see it off correctly.

As you were working more with Weiwei, do you feel like you were becoming a dissident by proxy?

I feel like there definitely was a transformation over time. When it started I certainly didn’t think Weiwei was even a dissident. I thought dissident was an inappropriate label for him, which people were starting to use in 2009 out of convenience—people would love to shorthand this idea of the dissident artist, and I was not sure if he was there yet. I felt like I had to bring a really heavy dose of skepticism. Here’s this world famous artist, who is traveling and earning lots of money. Who is asking him to speak for them?

More than anything, I thought the film was an examination of this guy’s character, and that through it you would see a lot of new things about China, because I felt that I was already thinking new things about China just by meeting him. I had never met anyone who talks about China like Weiwei does.

But is is not that classic story of the dissident being silenced, because that was not what I was seeing. He was saying all these things very freely, everyday, and giving interviews, and going online, and traveling the world.

Ai Weiwei’s Documentarian on Luck, Dissidence and Steven Colbert: An Interview with Alison Klayman