Film director Alison Klayman grew up in the Philadelphia area and graduated in 2006 from Brown University, where she majored in history and wrote her senior thesis about “slavery and servitude in 18th Century Rhode Island.’’ Six years later, she’s the director of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (艾未未: 草泥馬) a well-received documentary about Chinese artist and social provocateur Ai Weiwei (艾未未), which opened on Friday in Taiwan.
In a recent interview, Klayman explained how the movie came to be, how she initially met Ai and what the movie is about.
Spending time in China to shoot the movie, Klayman had to learn Chinese in a hurry, noting to the Taipei Times that she conducted all the Mandarin interviews without an interpreter.
Klayman spent four years in China, from 2006 to 2010, and during that time she took “all kinds of jobs and worked under all kinds of visas, including a Z work visa and a J journalist visa,” she said. Those jobs included working as an English coach on the set of a Jackie Chan (成龍) and Jet Li (李連杰) film, writing about basketball for the official 2008 Olympic website, bartending in a private members-only wine bar, voicing cartoons and making silicone dummies for a special effects studio.
“In 2008, I became an accredited journalist in China, and I went on to produce radio and television feature stories for PBS Frontline, the New York Times Op-Doc series, National Public Radio and others.”
Klayman met Ai in a roundabout way in 2008, she said, when her Beijing roommate Stephanie Tung was curating an exhibition of his photographs for a local gallery.
“She invited me to make a video to accompany the show,” Klayman said. “Ai liked the video. Those first few weeks of filming were enough to convince me that he was a charismatic and fascinating character and that I wanted to dig deeper into his story,” she said.
“I had filmed 20 hours for a 20-minute video, and in that time we covered a lot of topics that I wanted to pursue in greater detail that didn’t make it into the exhibition video, like his upcoming earthquake campaign and how he fights censorship on his blog, but also bigger questions like what motivates him and how he accomplishes all that he does.”
In the poster for the movie, Ai is seen giving viewers the finger. When asked what she thought the finger gesture means for Ai, Klayman said, “my interpretation, which I also apply to my own use of the gesture, is that it is about the ability/right we have to defy, challenge, mock, question any power structures or symbols of power in our world. I also think it stands for a rebellious and also fun-loving attitude.”
Making the documentary, she said, changed her life.
“This movie all came about because I had this opportunity to meet Ai and film him for a few weeks, and it was meeting him that made me want to continue to follow his story and learn more about him,” Klayman said.
“I wanted to know more about who Ai really was, what motivates his art and activism, and what would happen to him. I also thought that people around the world would learn something new about China by being introduced to him.”
Klayman said that she continued to film the initial video, called Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs, with Ai and eventually received support from a non-profit arts group in New York that supports movies about art and artists.
“We got financial support from individuals and foundations, including a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter. It took many years to raise the money for the whole film, although shooting it in China was really the cheapest part,” she said.
The documentary has been shown in New York and Taipei and other world capitals, but it has not yet been screened — publicly — in Beijing.
“We’re limited in our ability to show the movie publicly in China,” Klayman said. “Later this year we hope to [show] the film inside China using the same methods Ai uses to distribute his own films, including online and [using] underground methods.”
When asked if Ai has seen the film, Klayman said: “Yes, he has. We showed it to him in Beijing before the Sundance film festival in Colorado. His immediate response was that this is an engaging film but also an accurate depiction of what he has been trying to accomplish the last few years.”
“This film is about freedom of expression,” she said.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is currently being screened at Spot — Taipei Film House (光點—台北之家).