Timing, as they say, is everything, and for aspiring filmmaker Alison Klayman, that meant being in Beijing filming China’s most well-known contemporary artist, Ai Weiwei, at precisely the moment the Chinese government decided to throw him in jail.
It was certainly an illuminating moment, showing that despite all the publicity surrounding China’s increasing modernization, sophistication and social progress, you could be famous, admired at home and abroad, and still get thrown into the slammer for what amounts to thought crime.
Klayman, attending the Japan premiere of her documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” at the Tokyo International Film Festival — and now apparently calling Tokyo her home for a while — spoke to The Japan Times about her debut film, and the political climate in China. Klayman was originally drawn to China after graduating from Brown University, planning to visit some friends in Beijing for about five months that turned into five years. She readily admits, “It was about the most random thing I could do, but I loved learning languages and my aspiration was to do film and journalism, so I figured, ‘What better way to start than to just go somewhere?’ “
Klayman went through a spell studying Mandarin and working various jobs she found online, including at a special-effects studio and as an actor’s assistant. “You can really tell a lot about a city by looking at the expat websites, what the jobs listed are,” she notes. “There’s a lot more porn on the Craigslist here than I ever saw in China. I thought, wow, so these are the ‘exciting film opportunities’ in Tokyo.” (Laughs.)
Klayman’s connection with Ai came about when her roommate at the time was curating an exhibition of the artist’s photos and asked her if she’d be interested in making a video to accompany it. Klayman sensed an opportunity and she “jumped right into it, never expecting that it would wind up being several years.” She shot the video, but then stayed in Ai’s circle, continuing to film his studio, his shows and, increasingly, his personal life and confrontations with the police. “Documentaries are sort of the highest form of journalism,” Klayman says. “You enter into something and you stick with it for a long time and things are going to unfold in front of the camera. That was really what I wanted to have a chance to try and do.”
When asked why she was so fascinated by Ai, despite not having a background in the art world, Klayman says that the “force” of his personality held her interest.
“There’s his biography, his political stance, his art and his views on art. I thought that no short piece could encapsulate him and I had so many questions. I think that’s always a great premise for a documentary, when you don’t know at all what the answer is.”
Klayman found her story, digging into what would drive a quirky but successful visual artist to do something as risky as releasing a photo of himself flipping the bird at Tiananmen Square, a major-league taboo in China. A big part of the answer may lie in the experiences of Ai’s parents, intellectuals who were viciously persecuted during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution of the 1950s and ’60s. There was also the influence of New York City’s radical downtown art scene, where Ai spent part of the ’80s. Yet as Klayman’s film makes poignantly clear, the only way to measure your freedom is to walk straight ahead until you bump up against the prison walls.
In Ai’s case, since 2005 he had been living an increasingly mediated life online, using a blog on Weibo — China’s massively popular microblog website — to document himself as part of his art. He could be political in some of his comments, with seemingly no backlash from the government, but Klayman points to two events in particular that seemed to radicalize him.
The first — too complicated to be included in the film — was the trial of Yang Jia, a Shanghai man who was beaten by the police to the point where he stabbed a couple of them in revenge. The circumstances of the case were ignored in the trial, and as Klayman points out, “It was a very high-profile miscarriage of justice. Ai took up his case, making films about him and attending a vigil.”
But the greater event by far was the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and the mass deaths of children who were crushed when poorly built schools came tumbling down on them. As horrible as that event was, the government’s attempts to cover it up and silence grieving parents — who were seeking accountability for the corruption-fueled shoddy construction — were equally shocking.
In much the same way that Japanese artists were some of the first to speak out against nuclear power after the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant — people such as Kenzaburo Oe, Haruki Murakami, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Taro Yamamoto, who lost a part in a TV series after attending an anti-nuclear-power demonstration — Ai dove into the Chinese issue with immense passion, putting together his own memorial project to document the names of all the children who had died.
Unlike the Yang case, this one got him into trouble; Ai at that point was mainstream enough to work as an artistic consultant for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but — in a moment captured in Klayman’s film — he was beaten by Chengdu police in his hotel room, to the point where he would later have to undergo emergency surgery for a cerebral hemorrhage.
“(Yang’s case) is a very radical and fringe issue to be holding up,” Klayman notes, “but the earthquake is a very mainstream one. And Ai had this platform to perfectly communicate his response to it. He did both with equal vigor, but I think the earthquake one reached so many non-activist Chinese, just regular people. It was something everyone was upset about and everyone could relate to, and I think that was the tipping point for the government to shut down his blog.”
Ai persisted, however, moving to Twitter and attempting to file a complaint against the cops who attacked him. On April 3, 2011, he was arrested and jailed for nearly three months without any charges being filed. The message to dissenters in China was clear: No one is safe.
While the documentary spends plenty of time watching Ai as an artist and father, the police surveillance is continuous, with cops filming him aggressively wherever he goes. It’s as if they are collecting evidence of his crimes, even if he is just sitting down for noodles with some friends.
“It’s very much an intimidation tactic,” Klayman says. “What makes Ai Weiwei Ai Weiwei is his attitude, like, ‘OK, you’re filming me, then I’m going to film you too.’ That’s what happens when there’s a lack of rule of law — it ends up becoming a battle of personal will; not even personal power, but the ability to convey you have that power.”
Viewers will likely walk out of the film with a great deal of respect for the artist’s integrity and a changing China where civic activism is on the rise, but also a sobering view of what they’re up against.
“I think that while Ai Weiwei’s story reveals a lot that is specific about China today, there’s also something universal about the struggle for free expression,” Klayman says. “You could be living in any country, in any political system, and there will be pressure for you to speak out sometimes and the question is: What are you going to do about it?
“It’s funny how some people still ask me questions about the film, like ‘What was is like to be with someone who’s being monitored all the time?’ I mean, since the (U.S.) NSA revelations of the past half year, can we still talk about it like it’s such a unique circumstance? Obviously it’s done to a bigger degree in China, but it’s an issue everyone is facing. My favorite reaction is when people see the film and say, ‘That reminds me of something here.’ As opposed to people who are, like, ‘I’m so glad I don’t live in China.’ That’s not the point: I enjoyed my stay in China, and I care about it.”
Apparently, she’s welcome back, too: Klayman has applied for and received a visa to return to China since the release of her film, much to the amazement of her friends at Ai’s studio. That’s one small, but positive, sign of change.
“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” opens in selected cinemas Nov. 30. For more information, visit www.aiweiweineversorry.com.