“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” features a pairing of bold artists—a Chinese activist willing to blatantly attack a party known for stressing unity and avoiding conflict and a 24-year-old American filmmaker pursuing a story no one had asked her to tell.
On Tuesday, first-time director Alison Klayman came to campus to screen and discuss her documentary as part of an event co-sponsored by the Asian American Alliance and Columbia’s Heyman Center for Humanities.
“Ai Weiwei” tells the story of artist Weiwei’s creative genesis and emergence as one of China’s most vocal political critics. His work is largely inspired by the events following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the collapse of what have become known as the “tofu-dreg schools,” which killed thousands of students. Klayman follows the artist’s constant efforts to expose the errors of the Communist Party of China through his art, staged provocations of the government, and constant documentation on social media.
Though the content of both the artwork and the documentary are very serious, Klayman expressed her desire to keep it light and relatable. She cites a sequence in which Weiwei’s cat jumps and opens a door, which adds levity at the opening of the film.
“I always wanted the film to start with meeting an artist in his home in China,” Klayman said after a screening in the Northwest Corner Building. “It subverted the expectation of ‘this is a movie about a Chinese activist.’ Also, I think it’s a funny way to start the film, and if this movie was not funny I would have considered it a bad movie about Ai Weiwei, because he’s a fun-loving and funny guy.”
Weiwei’s humor and his fearlessness are part of the reason Klayman was initially attracted the activist.
“I think the big draw was his boldness and his willingness and joy in talking about politics,” Klayman said. “At that point, [after] two years in China, I was really struck. I hadn’t had those kind of conversations with almost anyone.”
The more she filmed, the better a subject he seemed. “He’s a talented artist with a big megaphone,” she said.
Despite Klayman’s interest in the artist, her film didn’t begin as a documentary but as a short video about Weiwei in conjunction with an art exhibit in Beijing. She felt compelled to continue filming before she ever redefined her project.
About nine months into filming, a friend visiting Weiwei asked who the woman with the camera was. “That’s Alison, she’s been filming forever,” Klayman recalled Weiwei saying. “She’s making a documentary.”
“Honestly, that is the moment that sticks out in my mind like, OK, we are making a documentary,” Klayman said.
Her first work won the Special Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and she has been named one of the “20 Directors to Watch” by the New York Times.
Klayman offered advice about her experience to a room packed with young Columbia students. “You can kinda look back and follow all the dots, but, going forward, I think it was a lot of trusting my gut and just kind of making it work,” she said.