Why She’s On Our Radar: Rookie filmmaker Alison Klayman lucked out on her first project by managing to pin down China’s most famous international artist and outspoken domestic critic, Ai Weiwei, for a documentary profile. Since premiering “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” at Sundance, where it went on to win a Special Jury Prize, Klayman has seen her profile rise as controversy around the film and its subject have continued to grow. It opens in select theaters this Friday via Sundance Selects.
What’s Next: “I still want to do more projects that have to do with China,” Klayman told Indiewire. “The China story also doesn’t only take place in China. I’m not saying that’s the only project I want to make, but in building my list of ideas, I keep getting drawn back.”
You’re probably one of the few filmmakers who actually wouldn’t mind if your film became a download sensation.
Yeah, I mean I think we actually haven’t seen yet what the impact is going to be because we’ve been successful so far in that it that it has not been bootlegged yet. Obviously this is a film where there will be a point of pride in its bootlegging dissemination in China at some point. Everyday on Twitter, people tweet in Chinese saying, “What is the download link?” In China, there’s really no chance of official distribution of any kind, but there’s a huge appetite.
What were your expectations initially in making this?
My intention to begin with was to do the first really good look at him. If you follow China and if you follow the art world, you would’ve heard of him; certainly by 2008, when I first met him, you certainly would have heard of him. Now that I’ve kind of come full circle by finishing the film in New York and starting to think commercially, I realize how few people in the world have actually have heard of him. But if you’re in those two worlds, you practically feel like he’s overdone. So my focus, I think in some ways, was to have my head down with blinders on, because I wanted do the best show possible. That was really how I saw it. I didn’t want to apply a label before it fits so I could really figure out what he’s about.
I don’t assume I know anything about what really motivates him—is he really a self promoter or is he really embarking on something bigger than that? Where is he heading?
When did you first come in contact with his work?
It was through my roommate in Beijing at the time. I was already living in China for two years. The first year I was kind of all over. I worked on a Jacki Chan/Jet Li movie; I traveled to Tibet and Taiwan; and I got to do really cool things under the auspices of ‘I came here to have an adventure and to learn Mandarin.’
After the Olympics, my roommate had been working on curating for a gallery that she worked for in Beijing that was showcasing his New York photograph show. That was really the first work I encountered before the show came out. There were these three big black binders with contact sheets of all the images, and they’d be around my house all the time so I’d look through them. I came to understand part of Weiwei’s life really because of that show.
She eventually said, “We could really use a video to go with the exhibition to kind of give more depth to the story. Would you like to come around and do it?” That was the reason I first met him. Essentially I just had a good opportunity. I just never put that camera down. So I never pitched myself in terms of, “This is me and I have this idea, we’re doing this project.” It really just kind of started already with that relationship and then I was just able to keep it going.
I really see the most important distinction about what made me different than all the others around him, was that I was not his employee, and I was in it for the long haul.
Where was your family living at the time?
They live in Philly.
How did they react when you rung them up to tell them you were going to make a film about Ai Weiwei…within China?
The fact that I went to China in 2006 after I graduated from college was definitely a random thing for me to have done. I did not study China, it wasn’t something you could have plotted out.
What did you study?
I studied history and I wrote a thesis about slavery and servitude in colonial Rhode Island, so I had pretty much nothing. I think studying history is a good background for journalism but pretty far from China. But I guess my parents thought, “Oh China, OK!” But they came and visited me—it was supposed to be a five-month trip I went on with a friend—and then they came for four months, because it was “When are we ever going have our daughter in China?!” They were like, “Wow, China is really interesting,” and I said, “I’m glad you think so, because I think I’m going to stay.”
After I met Ai Weiwei, they saw me turn down, over the course of the two years, other opportunities that might have sounded more structured. Now they are super devoted Ai Weiwei supporters at this point. I didn’t call them at the time and say, “I’m making a movie about freedom of expression,” or “I’m making a movie about the power of the internet.” I was just like, “I’m doing this thing about Ai Weiwei.”
Right before the Olympics, it was really hard to keep your visa. They made it really difficult for foreigners to stay, so everybody was having visa scrambles. I found a solution to stay, but it involved flying back to the states. That was 2008 and before I met Ai Weiwei. I didn’t tell them I was coming home — I decided I’d play a joke. My brother picked me up at the airport, and I came home unnanounced and screamed from the bottom of the stairs, “Hey guys!” They asked what I was doing home, and I told them I got deported.
Now…I don’t think that’d be a joke.