Since it’s first screening a few weeks ago art documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry has been snapping up awards left, right and centre. Ellie Golder was lucky enough to grab some time for a chat with the films director Alison Klayman…
Never Sorry is the first inside look from an outside perspective into the life of one of the most controversial and influential public figures of our lifetime, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. The film explores not only the opposition he encounters from the Chinese government for his outspoken criticism of their politics, but it reveals the personal struggle behind his conflicts.
In the film Klayman has managed to capture a unique perspective of Weiwei, one that shows how his passion for freedom of thought and expression not only permeate his life but are beginning to change a nation.
Why did you choose to do a documentary on Ai Weiwei?
It had always had been a dream of mine to make a documentary film as I studied journalism. When I first met Ai Weiwei through a mutual friend I began to realise what a fascinating subject he’d make for a documentary. Even if he was just making breakfast or talking about art he always had something interesting to say and he was just so informed about China, it fascinated me.
Weiwei has often been accused of simply being a success in the art world due to publicity and his use of social media. China’s government even issued a statement about it. Did you find this to be true when filming the documentary?
One of the core questions I wanted to answer was what is his own relationship to truth. His work often plays with ideas of the fake and the genuine. As a man who advocates complete transparency in government, it interested me to see whether he would be willing to show us complete transparency in his day-to-day life. Of course, he is very media savvy and knows how to take full advantage of the internet as a communication tool to promote himself but what I found was that he always did it with an agenda of promoting freedom and human rights rather than simply himself.
How happy was he happy to be open about his private life during filming?
I was actually quite surprised by the relaxed attitude he had towards me filming him. Those around Weiwei always assumed I was there working for him… no one knew I was actually an outside party. No one questioned me when I turned on the camera. Weiwei himself was very open and welcoming too and always willing to talk.
Weiwei has often come into conflict with the Chinese government and has had many restrictions imposed on his activities. Did you experience any restrictions or obstacles while filming?
The Chinese government has been very strict in prohibiting Weiwei from communicating with a domestic audience, but they didn’t oppose foreign media. There were times in official places where I was asked to turn off the cameras or had my tapes confiscated. Luckily I always made sure I changed them quite frequently so no real amount of footage was lost.
In the wake of the Arab Spring you’ve picked the perfect time to highlight the world’s struggle for human rights. Do you think that the reforms Weiwei is arguing for will happen through radical changes or will this be a slow long term struggle?
I can’t speak for Weiwei but I believe gradually change is being ushered in with social media and new internet tools. Weiwei simply wants to be a public intellectual and a vessel for change but it’ll be a gradual thing rather than something that happens over night.
As an outspoken public figure and political artist, who would you compare Weiwei to?
He may be an American public figure, but I think Stephen Colbert holds does a similar job of using a creative way to promote transparency in government and human rights. Nowadays most of America get their news from topical comedy shows and Stephen Colbert often roasts the American government and exposes issues. Creative mediums like his have become invaluable to creating global conversation and interest. Both Colbert and Weiwei are pranksters in a way.
The film opened at the Human Rights Festival in Germany last week, when making the film did you have any idea how subversive it would be and what was the most significant moment?
It has definitely become more subversive. If you had told me a year ago that my film would be opening the Human Rights Festival I wouldn’t have believed you. The project fell into my lap, and I just decided to keep an open mind and go with it. I can’t say what the most significant moment was, but the most tense and affecting experience was definitely Weiwei’s detention. That was scary for all of us, being in such close contact with government officials and the police.
How did you decide where to end the film and is there anything you regret having to leave out?
That’s a good question because it was very hard to cut down the 200 film hours to just 90 minutes, so we ended up with a very dense film. You’re never really done when doing a film on Weiwei because there’s always something new and exciting happening with him. The most important thing for me was to show him from a different angle, from an outside point of view. I did nothing else. Ai creates his own fate.
Ai Weiwei in cinemas across the UK from today.