Alison Klayman Interview



After leaving university and moving to China, in what can only be considered a personal and professional leap of faith, aspiring journalist and filmmaker Alison Klayman stumbled upon the opportunity to produce a short exhibition video on talismanic Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Four years later Alison remained immersed in the inspirational and often shocking life of contemporary art’s most provocative and influential force of nature. Whether literally raising a middle finger to the establishment, condemning the Olympic stadium he helped create or painstakingly producing artwork to illuminate the corruption buried beneath the rubble of one of Chinese history’s greatest tragedies, Ai Weiwei is unmistakably outspoken. After being harassed, beaten and finally silenced by the Chinese government, the artist’s story threatened to be lost until Klayman’s first feature Never Sorry liberated it from exile. I speak to the director about following Ai Weiwei into the eye of his motherland’s storm.

How did you become involved with Ai Weiwei and the project?

I way that I ended up getting the opportunity to meet Ai Weiwei was really because I took a chance in 2006. When I graduated from college in the states I decided to move to China with a friend hoping to become a journalist and documentary filmmaker. I decided to go about my future career by travelling abroad, learn a new language and have adventures. Just by chance my friend, who I’d already made a student film with, had family there so I tagged along on her trip and ended up staying for four years. In 2008 I’d already had many jobs and worked on my Mandarin as much as I could with tutors and friends. I was living with someone working on an exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s in Beijing and she asked me to produce a video to accompany the show and explain the background of the photographs on display. It happened to be an exhibition of his New York photographs so it was very personal to Ai Weiwei and revealing of the time he spent there in the 1980’s. Being the hopeful, aspiring filmmaker I jumped at the chance to do this little project, and after meeting Ai Weiwei I felt strongly that he was very complex and engaging character that required a closer look. I produced the short video over a couple of weeks and ended up continuing to film for many years.

How did you find the experience of documenting such a high-profile artist whilst still finding your own feet as a filmmaker, especially since you adopted so many roles and don’t come from a film school background?

After seeing the film people come up to me and say “what’s your background, how did you learn how to make films?” I say you just saw it, that was my education. I’d made lots of shorts and web video work which crossed over in to journalism beforehand, and my background in radio storytelling proved extremely helpful. I was always someone who was very conscious of having high quality sound, even when I was learning to become a cinematographer it was important that I was running sound properly but it’s really the lessons of storytelling, reporting and analysis that proved the most valuable. The best thing I did was beginning the project with an open mind about Ai Weiwei, I wanted to document as much as possible in order to better understand my subject. I didn’t come in with a set agenda to make a specific kind of movie. I didn’t have the adjectives or labels that I wanted to use, what I wanted was the chance to follow someone and see what happened to them, letting the footage be the evidence and boy did I luck out in having a subject who was so open and willing to let me do that. He was doing so much that just to point a camera at him and get coverage of the many aspects of his life was initially the project.

You’ve mentioned the analytical and journalistic side of Never Sorry but are people surprised by the fact that the film is also so aesthetically accomplished?

It’s definitely good to hear. There’s something about filming an artist which leaves you no option to do a poor job. From an aesthetic perspective, I definitely felt challenged to rise to the occasion. Even when you’re doing something as simple as filming his artwork, Ai Weiwei’s a world-class artist, you can’t turn up and do a terrible job, you really have to bring a lot of thought and care to the process. Personally, I was always someone who watched everything; films, documentaries, even reality television. I was constantly thinking about the choices and options I had. How did they get that shot? How did they set that up? What question did they ask to get that response? After getting to pursue a project over such long amount of time I really had to bring the best intentions to the table and all the more so as time went on. With the escalating tensions and opposition from the Chinese government and Ai Weiwei’s eventual detention I thought “wow” I’m in a position to document someone who people want and need to know more about. I felt I had a responsibility to do justice to his story from the start, creating something that spoke and appealed to a wide audience.

During an early scene, one of Ai Weiwei’s sculptor’s likens himself to the artist’s hands or a hired assassin. Did you see yourself as an extension of Ai Weiwei, for instance becoming his eyes?

I certainly developed greatly as a filmmaker and ‘truth-seeker’ under his instruction and example. I was trying to understand him; so much of his work is about communication and documentation. He produces documentary film himself and certainly for this film, in terms of style, I felt like I wanted it to be more accessible than his, but I also didn’t want it to be too polished because that’s not him and ultimately I wanted the film to represent its subject. I learned a lot from him but I always viewed myself as autonomous and separate from those who worked for him. The sculptor who says he’s an assassin, on that job, on those pieces he was making for Ai Weiwei, was definitely like a hired gun but he’s actually an artist in his own right. He creates many works and he doesn’t do them because of Ai Weiwei, he does them independently and from his own artistic impulse. In my case Ai Weiwei never hired me to do a specific thing, he never gave me too much direct instruction about what I was supposed to do or film for my movie and because of that it was really easy for me to maintain my independence. He certainly influenced me just through spending the last three years trying to figure him out and he’s also a very inspiring artist and activist so I think there’s a lot that I have learned from him but I always viewed it as this is my movie, Ai Weiwei is in my movie. He’s a much more high-profile figure than I am on a world stage and the film is powerful because of his art, but when I’m holding the camera everybody who steps in front of it is coming into my world.

During a scene in which Ai Weiwei faces opposition from local police he states “The police don’t know the power of the image”. After your background in freelance journalism did it feel empowering to be able to utilise imagery and its added potency?

To start thinking about the story and the imagery and having scenes I think that filmmaking is different. It’s not just a matter of being a much longer journalism piece; there are a lot of really transformative elements of the art and form that sets it apart from journalism. With journalism you’re coming into these environments and searching for the story whilst not fully realising what it is until you find it whereas with film you’re thinking about the story in a much more lyrical manner and envisioning scenes. I feel like the power of an image and a scene that you don’t have to tell people you can kind of just show it and humour also plays a really big role, how often in journalism do you get the chance to have these really humorous moments? That’s a really big part of his appeal, and the appeal of this story is that it serious but it’s also really engaging and human, so I think utilising the power of the image and getting to see this film have a life of its own during this whole year of distribution has been a major learning experience just as much as making the film. I get to see the impact, I get to see what it means for audiences all over to watch the film, interpret and react to it and I’m really excited by the fact that it has a power and that definitely compels me to keep doing it. I want to keep bringing those journalistic standards but if I could keep making films I’d be really happy because I think the way it engages audiences is so powerful.

It’s mentioned how during his career Ai Weiwei’s main concerns shifted from artistic to sociopolitical ones, did you yourself experience the same transition whilst making the documentary.

He does have the political, social, artistic and personal elements but while I was filming it I didn’t know that what percentages of the story the film would be. It was my job in this field to be capturing as much as possible, that said the story of Ai Weiwei is all of these things. He’s an art star having the biggest shows of his life at the height of his career, but he’s also someone who was becoming more engaged with politics of his country and reaching average citizens and people around the world through media coverage and the internet. That was the most essential aspect of the last few years, if you only talked about his art, and you could make an entire movie about his artwork, it is that conceptual and complicated to produce, yet it appears very simplistic, that would really be missing the story of Ai Weiwei and its sociopolitical influence over the last few years.

Do you believe art can truly facilitate social and political change in the case of artists such as Ai Weiwei and most recently Pussy Riot? Or is it simply just a case of raising awareness and shining a light on these establishments irrespective of the result?

Absolutely, I got that lesson doubly. Once in watching the impact that Ai Weiwei has on his fans, and his ability to turn average people on the internet, who aren’t necessarily activists or from the art world in to fans. His actions and his artwork provide a road in for people to engage with what he’s trying to do. It’s transformative for people to be exposed to such a powerful story or idea that they didn’t know about. Then I had to learn the whole lesson again in seeing how this film engages with people. Maybe they had heard of Ai Weiwei or read an article but to really experience a story through film is so influential.  People leave and want to express themselves, utilising art and social media to proliferate the truth. It activates people and I get to couldn’t be more convinced that art, culture and film may possibly be more powerful than politics in terms of delivering a message, it allows people a space to discover things for themselves and the lesson is much truer.

Is it difficult leaving a project on quite a sombre tone whilst events are still ongoing or do you feel as though you’re contribution and influence as a filmmaker can be far greater than that of retrospective documentaries?

The whole time I was working on this, even as early as 2009, I was thinking this movie is not going to end because the story comes to an end, it’s going to end at the point when I have enough material to tell a feature-length story because Ai Weiwei is far from over. I think in the end I ended up having a story that comes to a conclusion much more than I thought it would. It ends with a big question mark, ‘what’s going to happen next?’ and this dramatic and unprecedented detention and release. The truth is the story is still ongoing. It’s very difficult to know when to stop the film, but in his detention I ended up being given a great dividing moment. In the life of Ai Weiwei, things right now, are so up in the air and uncertain that I don’t really want any of these things to be in the film because I don’t yet have any perspective of what’s happening and I don’t know where it’s headed. That might be the line between documentary and journalism; journalism is reporting the latest and with documentary you’ve obviously documented something, processed it and then pieced it into a bigger story, and right now I need a couple of years to see where all this goes before its time to continue.  Instead we follow his developments on social media on our twitter and Facebook feeds but the film I think ends exactly where it should. I’m at ease about where the film ends.

Creative Commons Licence
Alison Klayman Interview by Brody Rossiter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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