Alison Klayman's journey to Sundance -- where she received a thunderous standing ovation this past January for the premiere of her documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry -- was a circuitous one. Unlike most documentaries, labors of love that are often born from years of obsession and devotion, Klayman's was the byproduct of a casual encounter that quickly grew into something much bigger -- the dramatic story of a heroic artist at war with the mighty Chinese government.
After graduating from Brown in 2006, where she had dabbled in film (she made a documentary about the history of student activism at the university) and majored in history, Klayman, at loose ends, decided to take up a friend's invitation to stay with her family in Shanghai. After five months, the friend was ready to return to the States, but Klayman was hooked. "I was having such a good time," says the 27-year-old filmmaker, "and knew there was just so much more to learn. I decided to stay." She moved to Beijing, and determined to learn Mandarin, cobbled together an existence from a rag-tag assortment of jobs that included teaching Hebrew to the children of Jewish expats, working on a Jackie Chan-Jet Li movie and waitressing at a members-only wine bar. As her expertise grew, she began writing for various news outlets -- a Jewish news wire, NPR, CBC -- which qualified her for a journalists' visa and more freedom to maneuver through the Chinese bureaucracy.
Her life would take an important turn when a friend, working on an exhibit of Ai Weiwei's photographs taken when he lived in New York in the '80s, asked Klayman to make a video to help put the story in context.
"I first met Ai Weiwei in December of 2008 with the cameras already rolling," Klayman recalls. "I remember the footage of him walking into his office. I was there filming people from the gallery, so there wasn't much introduction. It was like, 'oh, that's Alison and she's going to make a video.' We got along really well and it was a cool headspace to meet him in because he was reminiscing about his days in New York."
While working on the short video, Klayman realized there was more to the story, especially now that her subject was about to break out onto the world's political arena. "I had so much footage that didn't make it into the cut, because it didn't pertain to the New York years, and I wanted to do something more with it and his story. I continued to check in with Weiwei, and it was over the summer and in the fall of 2009 that the idea of a feature film gained momentum."
At the start of 2008, Ai Weiwei, the son of a revered poet Ai Qing (who was denounced during Mao's reign and sent to a labor camp), was a known quantity with little more than a growing art world reputation. In May, a terrible earthquake killed thousands of children in Sichuan while Beijing was getting ready to host the summer Olympics. With Ai Weiwei on board as artistic consultant to work with architects Herzog and de Meuron on the Beijing National Stadium, the now famous "Bird's Nest," the world's attention turned to a re-branded China with a happy face. Until Ai Weiwei created an international incident by refusing to attend the opening ceremonies and publicly denouncing it all as scary propaganda.
Ai Weiwei blamed the collapse of the schools and the children's deaths on the government's shoddy "tofu" construction practices. Hoping to cover up the story, China went dumb, refusing to release the names or numbers of the children who had been crushed. Outraged, Ai Weiwei turned to social media, mainly using Twitter to keep the pressure on, and organizing an "investigation" that used the children's mothers to recover the names of the dead.
Established as a folk hero with growing political power, he now had everyone's attention. (Never forgetting his art work, Ai Weiwei made a heartbreaking piece composed of children's backpacks like the ones he had seen at the sites where the schools once stood.)
Subsequently, he was put under government surveillance and suffered a beating by the police, which landed him in the hospital.
Not to be quieted, Ai Weiwei continued to press his grievances through the official Chinese channels as well as his blogs, Twitter and the procession of media arriving at his doorstep. "I felt like I had to pick an artificial point to end my film," Klayman recalls. "But then his studio got torn down [by the Chinese government as punishment for his actions], so I went back and said, of course, this is important." She resumed shooting until his detention and subsequent release.
All this and more, Klayman captures in her charismatic subject, encompassing the political turmoil; his art projects in London, Munich and New York; his family life; and his status as "teacher" among his staff and followers. Scheduled to arrive in Hong Kong, he was detained at the Beijing airport in April of 2011 and arrested for "economic crimes." The international media was outraged, and Hillary Clinton helped pressure the Chinese government to release him, which they did some two months later.
A real life thriller with a not-so-happy ending, a gaunt Ai Weiwei has since retreated and refuses to speak to reporters for fear of being sent back to prison.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry gives us a compelling portrait of a time in the life and mind of an artist caught up in the politics of his times. What will happen now is hard to predict. "I'm not sure that Ai Weiwei has it figured out yet," Klayman says. "But the way he sees it, you always have to find a new way to play the game."
Above: Stills from Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Originally published March 15, 2012.