With her documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry getting a limited release in North America on Friday July 27th, I sat down with Alison Klayman, the first time director and the winner of Special Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
First of all, congratulations on winning the Special Jury Prize at this year's Sundance.
Yeah, it was so exciting and I feel like with this movie, it's just a constant state of arrival because everything since has continued to be exciting and that next week (the week of the film's release) is the real thing, you know? I keep telling myself, hasn't it already happened with Sundance? Human Rights Watch (Film Festival) also was a big deal, but next week is I guess the real thing, as everyone says.
So what's the situation right now with Ai Weiwei? The last time I checked his twitter, there were some phony tax evasion charges and his team suing the Beijing tax authority and there was finally a court date. Then there are the pornography and bigamy charges?
He did have a hearing in the tax court. He had paid the half of the total fines plus back taxes in order to bring this challenge (against tax evasion charges). But it was rejected. Then he filed a lawsuit against Beijing Tax authority. That was a pretty ballsy move! The amazing thing was couple of month ago, the court decided to hear the case, which was already much more than anybody expected. But it also means that we already know that the outcome will be, which is of course, what the authorities would desire. The hearing in court was in the same week as June 22nd (the anniversary of his release from solitary confinement in 2011). But Weiwei and many others were not allowed to go and were prevented from congregating outside the court, in fact many bus routes were rerouted to not to go near the court house.
According to his lawyer and people who were present said that the court wasn't even listening to any of their concerns and hurriedly marching toward the inevitable conclusion. The court has some time until August to render the decision on the case.
As far as I know, I checked the tweets this morning, there were no decisions made.
When June 22nd came, they gave him a piece of paper that said, "Your bail conditions are lifted," but they did not give him his passport back and they said, "we'd like you not to travel because there are many ongoing investigations that you are subjected to including pornography and bigamy." I think what's sad about all this is that essentially it's a confirmation that his situation has not improved from the day he was released to now.
We were hoping that maybe on June 22nd, something would be different but I think it's even worse to be on the other side of that date because there is no more solid date to pin hope on or to say that after that day, something might be different. His conditions has been a stasis for over a year now.
I heard that his lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan is missing?
He was missing at one point. He was held essentially. He is still tweeting about it now. What happened was they (the public security officials) went and questioned him the entire day of that tax hearing where the lawsuit was heard in court and the next morning they put him on a plane back to his home town. Actually Lu is not his lawyer representing his tax case. His license was revoked around the time they demolished Weiwei's studio. Weiwei tweeted and corrected all journalist that Lu is not his lawyer representing his case but a legal consultant. Pu Zhiquiang, who represented Tan Zuoren (Chengdu earthquake activist), is the lawyer of the current case.
How did the project start? How did you get involved with it?
I always end up telling this story for the questions regarding how it all started because the answers boil down to this one lucky happenstance. I went to China in 2006 and didn't know who I really was. I wish could say I knew who I wanted to be but I didn't. There was always a vague notion that I wanted to do documentary work and do journalism. So 2008, I was still there, about to get an accreditation for journalism and bought my first camera during my Olympics job during the summer. My roommate was working on an exhibition of Ai Weiwei's photographs from the 80s when he lived in New York. So my first exposure to Ai Weiwei was through these amazing photographs. There were thousands and thousands of them. I wouldn't claim to know his work back then. I knew that he was pretty outspoken about the Olympics. Then my roommate mentioned that they would love to have videos to go with the exhibition and asked me to do it. Of course, I said yes. So I went in and Ai Weiwei came in to his office and I started filming him right away. Everything was sort of set up for me already. So thankfully, it was kind of a normal routine for everyone that 'Alison is going to be there, filming Ai Weiwei' all the time.
Things you see about his personal life in the film is something that I had to push for, but there were so much going on with his work life, so I just felt like it was more important to be 'that fly on the wall', capturing his art being made, his activism, him corresponding with his tweeter fans and dealing with curators. This kind of documentary was what I aspired to do but since I've never done it before, I just learned by doing it as I went along.
Even before doing this documentary, working on a short for the gallery, within a couple of weeks following Ai Weiwei, I realized that people can just watch him for 90 minutes easily. And there were still so much I wanted to know.
How much footage are we talking about?
200- 300 hours worth is what I brought back. Definitely brought back at least 200 tapes and had fair amount of additional footage over the years that I got from Weiwei including his films, texts and not to mention photos. He puts everything online, so I dedicated a lot of post production time on getting his blog photos, back searching his tweeter (which doesn't go back too far). There was a photo site he was using for his tweeter, so we were able to find some tweeter photos from 2009 when he was setting up the Munich show. There was a whole segment on tweeter photos that didn't end up in the film but the hospital photos did end up going in. The thing is, that there are so much materials that you can cull from, but I thought it would be better to have the timeline of his activities and his persona on tweeter intersecting with what was shown in the film, since he uses social media to communicate with outside world.
There are some hairy situations in the film. What was your working condition like being close to Ai Weiwei? Did you ever feel that you were in physical danger?
The only times that I actually ran into problems were on those trips to Chengdu. When we were going through the process- him going to the police stations, courthouses and we were following him with the cameras and you see the camera cutting out. It was because someone pulled me aside. When fights broke out, it was a little more intense. The cop with the bright green shirt you see in the film came to the van I was in and that's why you see some shots are from the van and the other one is from Zhao Zhao (Ai's personal videographer)'s camera as he was being attacked. The cop came to the van and grab the camera and was yelling at me and that time I pretended I didn't speak Chinese. Eventually he took the tape and closed the door on me. The main tactic that Weiwei and his team taught me in filming those scenarios was to constantly change the tapes, so that I did get the tapes confiscated or I was forced to delete something, they were usually fresh tapes. Obviously I had enough tapes so that's why it's in the film. Those moments are nerve-wracking in general. But I wasn't particularly scared that something was going to happen to me. I was definitely scared that something would happen to the people I was with who were Chinese citizens, because they ran much greater risks than an American accredited journalist.
But then again, I hear situation isn't that great right now for journalists. It had a better atmosphere in 2010 than it does now.
Ai Weiwei is getting a lot of support from public for his fight for the freedom of expression. He is very popular among young people. And I can't think of any subversive artist in the US who gets that kind of popularity and support. Why do you think that is?
Weiwei is an international figure but he is also very much a Chinese figure whose work is connected to Chinese context politically, which is very different than the US. But we are not immune to these problems either- we too always have to be aware of the freedom of expression being trampled on, of the rule of law or transparency. They are important in both places but the contexts are very different.
I'm pretty sure that there are many people who are fighting the good fight in the US. But when I was thinking about who our Ai Weiwei would be, I actually thought about Stephen Colbert. Everything he does with super PAC is brilliant because I think what that's doing is a very humorous and loud way to put a spotlight on transparency or the lack thereof. People are more aware of the super PAC than before because of him. He has a lot of audiences and most of them are young people. He even got people to give him money for this! Part of that is because it's fun and part of it is that it's a vote for the voice that's basically saying 'I'm tired of this bullshit!' Colbert is not an artist but in our context, I thought about comedians rather than someone from the fine art world.
But I didn't make the film just to point out the large differences between China and the US. When making the film, my point was not to say, 'look at the problems over there', but 'look at someone using courage and creativity to deal with these problems'. And I really think that's how the audience has been taking it.
What's next for you? Are you going to continue documenting this ongoing saga of Ai Weiwei?
I can't imagine my life not keeping up to speed with what's going on with him. Next few months I'll definitely try hard to bring the movie out, because we've been getting so much interests in so many different places around the world and I think it is really important. But I have been thinking very much about doing other things. In the vein of Ai Weiwei, I want to do something new and I do want to do more documentaries and keep myself busy creatively. But since I have a lot to live up to, I would be choosing the subject very cautiously. (laughs) I'm also thinking about shorts and series and screenplays but I don't think I'll have time to start anything new for another few months.
And what a way to start a career!
I guess, yeah. All by the dumb luck and crazy set of circumstances.
And hard work, I'm sure.
I feel very fortunate to be able to tell his story and to have that time with him for sure. My current dream right now is the day when the movie screens somewhere and afterward, Weiwei comes out to do the Q & A. We were hoping that it would have been possible after June 22nd. But everything is up in the air right now.
At least a video chat with him would be great.
We are looking into what would be possible right now. It should be really cool!
*Update: As expected, Chinese court rejected Ai Weiwei's tax evasion countersuit on July 20th. Ai and his supporters were barred from attending the hearing.Ai Weiwei is being released by IFC Films and opens on July 27th. Klayman will be on hand to introduce the film this weekend at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema in NYC. For tickets and more information, please visit IFC CENTER website and Lincoln Plaza Cinema website.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His opinions and musings of the world can be found at www.dustinchang.com