Until his arrest in Beijing on 3 April as he boarded a plane to Hong Kong, Ai Weiwei was merely an internationally acclaimed artist and public figure, best known in Britain for his work Sunflower Seeds, a rare critical success for an installation in the Tate Modern’s challenging Turbine Hall. Today, he is a household name. Even as his career reaches new heights, the prolific tweeter (60,129 entries at the time of his arrest) has been held incommunicado in an undisclosed location for more than three weeks.

To American film-maker Alison Klayman, he is both a close friend and the subject of her first feature-length documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Having spent more time with the artist than any other Western journalist, Klayman – only five years out of university – is well placed to comment on the evolving story of Weiwei’s arrest. Inundated with media requests since the incident, she spoke to us from New York, where she divides her time between postproduction work on the film and fundraising efforts in anticipation of an autumn release date.


Q The White Review — People often say that the first thing you need for a good documentary is access. When you began filming, Ai Weiwei was arguably the most famous artist in China. How did you manage to get access to him so early in your career as a filmmaker? Why were you interested in him to begin with?

A Alison Klayman — In 2008, at the end of the year, my friend Stephanie Tung was a curator at Three Shadows, RongRong and inri’s photography art centre in Beijing’s Caochangdi art district. They were almost ready to put up an exhibition of Weiwei’s photographs, so they’d spent months, if not a full year, at least, going through the 10,000-plus photographs that he took during the Eighties when he lived in New York – from 1983 to 1993. I knew about this project through my friend for a long time, and she invited me to come at the end of the process and make a video for the gallery to be displayed along with the photos.

So that was when I met Weiwei, and at that time I didn’t know too much about him. I probably knew the most accessible things about him, which is that he had this blog where he said incredible and irreverent things, and also did quirky photos, and somehow he was still doing it – this is before it got shut down in May 2009. Obviously if you googled him, you could learn about his involvement with the Bird’s Nest stadium and all that. But actually, we talked about current events, and the Sichuan earthquake was something that was on his mind and I knew that was on his radar, certainly for the coming year, and for his project that he was just starting.

But we were also talking about New York, and how he didn’t feel like he needed to learn about art and life only through school, and how he would just hang around at the Met, which was free, and how he had all kinds of different jobs, and all the things he took in during the decade he was in New York. And I just thought he was, if nothing else, incredibly charismatic, so the notion that I would want to spend more time with him was already there from the beginning.

Q The White Review — Ai Weiwei travels constantly and exhibits all over the world. Were you able to film at his international exhibitions? For example, did you make it to London for the Tate Modern opening?

A Alison Klayman — I went to several international shows of his – museum shows and even some talks, as well, in Germany and London and Japan and also in New York. I went to ‘So Sorry’ – the biggest show of his life – a whole solo show at the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich. And that was, I think, one of those moments where the project came more into focus and also sort of expanded. While he was in Munich, he also had surgery for the injuries he sustained in Chengdu [editor’s note: Weiwei sustained brain injuries after being beaten by Chinese police on August 12 2009 for his ongoing investigation into the ill-constructed school-buildings that collapsed during the earthquake, killing over 5,000 school-children].

He was just so well known in Germany, partly because of dOCUMENTA, and just in general Germans have been interested in him for a few years. It was like… you know someone in one context, and then suddenly you realize he’s a big deal. Which you already know, of course, because he’s having a museum show and it’s a big museum, but until you see it and you see that so many people in this other country all know your friend – that was an experience when I suddenly realized: he is an international star. I don’t know why but in Germany it hit me more than when I went to his show in Tokyo a couple of months before. But the Tokyo show was also before he was beaten and before the incident in Chengdu, before the surgery. So his reception in Germany was just huge.

Then the Tate show emerged as something in terms of structure for the film that I figured would be towards the end of the time I would spend with him. It just made sense – so much happens with him all the time that there’s going to be a compulsion to just keep following and keep recording. But it felt like the Tate show would be a culmination of one thing and it might be a good moment to stop, because there’s a lot of story already there. Of course I didn’t end up stopping there, because of the Shanghai studio demolition and house arrest, and of course the latest events.

Q The White Review — So your film will also reference the events of the past few weeks?

A Alison Klayman — It definitely will. It’s going to go all the way up to now. It’s more like every time something new happens, it shines a light on different elements, and makes certain things seem more important or not important. And obviously, this is incredibly important, so I think it’s something that viewers will look for in the film, no matter what the end result is. It’s still a moving process, and we don’t know what’s happening or what is going to happen.

Q The White Review — Have you attended any of the protests so far

A Alison Klayman — I went and filmed the ‘1,001 Chairs’ event in New York, and some of our team is also in Hong Kong, so we’ve always had images available through social media, and I get to see the Hong Kong action right away. We also have this great network on Facebook and Twitter of people who are posting pictures. Whether it’s in the UK or Berlin or San Francisco, we all get to see it. But in terms of the protests, I went to the one right across from the Chinese consulate in New York. I thought that even though it was just a couple hundred people, I still felt like it was an impressive turnout because lots of people brought chairs – it’s not a casual thing to attend a protest and bring a chair – and it ran the spread of everyone from China Democracy Party activists that had their big banners to artist types and also just people who were moved by the story.

Several people recognized me from Frontline or from knowing that I was working on Never Sorry, and it felt like a moment where I got to meet people in person who were touched by Ai Weiwei and cared about him. But I also think that because we were across the street from the consulate, herded into a small space – and because it was a Sunday, the consulate wasn’t open – it was more of a gesture than something that was going to influence the situation or change it, except to register your support in an act of solidarity that was pretty creative.

Q The White Review — Do you have a distributor already, and do you expect the film to be widely released?

A Alison Klayman — That’s always been our goal, for a lot of people to see the film internationally, and it looks like that’s going to be a reality. We don’t have any distribution deals yet, but there’s a lot of interest. So we’re just trying to figure it out. It’s a lot to handle in the last few weeks, in terms of the actual events, and then trying to finish the film – being thrust into this state of finishing, in terms of how it’s going to be shown to the world. I’m not that worried, I think that the goal for me really is and has always been to make a great film, and to have as many people see it as possible.

Q The White Review — Your short documentary Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei? aired on PBS in the US just a few days before the arrest. What was that week like for you?

A Alison Klayman — That week, because I follow him on Twitter and we often would write to each other on Twitter, I was seeing how the police started coming to his house. They came one day, and then a second night, and then the next morning, too, so they came a total of three times to check documents. Weiwei was posting the pictures of them visiting and said it seemed like they were really into checking the foreigners’ papers, but they were also checking the papers of workers, volunteers and people who lived there. And that did seem a little bit of a cause for concern, considering how many times they came. But Weiwei just discussed it on Twitter, he just followed what he always does and was very open about it.

We spoke after the PBS program aired, and he was excited that people online seemed to really like it, and that they were sharing it. And I don’t know if he actually watched it, because I know when I talked to him he had said it was loading too slow, and I sent him a link that was easier to access with the Firewall. But then when the news came, because I’m so linked into his Twitter and that world, I knew within the first hour or two that he was taken at the airport, and I immediately called people at his studio on Skype and came home. I basically stayed up the first night until 5:00 am I think, just being on Twitter and taking calls from journalists on the ground in Beijing. Because of the funny way that information flows within China, sometimes someone outside can know a lot and can access things quicker. I spent the next several days with Skype on next to my head in bed, and got woken up in the middle of the night. I didn’t ever want to miss any news, or not to be there if someone wanted to say, ‘Hey I’m about to go in for questioning, just wanted to let you know,’ something like that. So it just felt like a nightmare, it just felt like you couldn’t believe it.

I don’t think any of us really expected it would come to twenty-seven days out like it is now. I think there was a feeling then that maybe there would be news any moment from him. But instead, the news was like, ‘Oh and this person has been taken in for questioning, and this person we haven’t heard from’. And no-one has heard from Weiwei since then, and still no official statement to his family even just acknowledging that they have him, or that there are any charges, officially, so still nothing. When you’re used to hearing from someone every day, even while I’ve been here doing post-production, it’s just a total one-eighty.

Q The White Review — It’s a common feature of censorship in general that it heightens public interest in whatever has been censored. In this sense, your film will clearly benefit from all the attention that the incident has drawn. But you must feel quite conflicted about this, no?

A Alison Klayman — People would joke when they heard that I was doing a documentary about him, and say things like ‘Oh, if he was thrown in jail, that would be even bigger’. And I said, ‘No, if he got thrown in jail that would be terrible!’ The whole point is that he wasn’t trying to be put in jail. He knows how important and effective he is as an active, creative person with a voice that is being heard by people. So I knew that while the risk was there, I just never imagined that I was making a movie about someone who was going to be in government detention. I always felt like that wasn’t this movie.

And it’s still true, the movie is about these last three years, you know, and the last three years he has not been a political detainee. But I’m just grateful that I’m in a position to keep his story in people’s minds, since I spent enough time with him that I think I have a really good feel for him and I do care about him a lot. It’s different than people who work for him. A lot of people feel pressure not to speak, for good reason, and I feel like I’m very much in a position to speak being here in New York.

Q The White Review — But considering that so many of Ai’s friends and associates have been detained, do you worry that you may be on the government’s radar as well?

A Alison Klayman — I very much hope not, obviously. My life has been in Beijing for the last four years and I have ideas for more projects. I would just say that every journalist in Beijing has probably interviewed Ai Weiwei or has done a story about Ai Weiwei. No one spent as much time as I did, but I’m really hoping that I can be recognized as doing exactly what a foreign journalist does, what a documentarian does.

Q The White Review — What do you think is the long-term trend in China – towards greater freedom for artists, or towards restriction and intimidation?

A Alison Klayman — A lot of people, and even Weiwei himself, have said that he can be like a bellwether, a marker. He is sort of a litmus test for what is happening. And I think that what happens in his career, in his blogging, in everything he’s done online – all these activities have shown a lot of promise for creative expression in China. And definitely when I would interview his peers, they would talk about his blogging activities and they saw this as a signal that there is more freedom than there was before. So I think what happens to him is really critical. I don’t know what the long projection is, but I do think that watching Ai Weiwei is informative, for sure.

This article was published in April 2011 in The White Review. Click here to view the original.