The lines between art, journalism, and documentary filmmaking are often blurry ones. In 2008, director Alison Klayman, at the age of 24, found herself crossing those hazy lines to record the story of a man famous for doing the same. That man is Ai Weiwei, China's most important and controversial artist, and Klayman's documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry captures a pivotal period in Ai's career as the divisions between his art, activism, journalism, and his life disappear as he uses all four to rankle the Chinese government. Using a mix of art pieces, Twitter barbs, a citizen's investigation into deaths caused by poorly constructed school buildings during the Sichuan earthquake, and nose-thumbing confrontations with Chinese law enforcement, Ai became a folk hero to Chinese people and an example to the world of how art, the internet, and a rebellious attitude could be used to take on an repressive regime. Watch the trailer for Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry below.
I had a chance to email Klayman some questions about Ai Weiwei and the lines between art, journalism, and activism.
Jonathan Kim: What were your views on the role of artists in society? Did Ai Weiwei change that?
Alison Klayman: I think before this project, I probably held an unexamined belief that art could impact life, but it wasn't something I tested or thought about much. I was always drawn to art that seemed to speak to the artist's social condition and engaged with his/her surroundings. My experience following Ai Weiwei for several years and thinking critically about the meaning of his own work, combined with seeing the impact of Never Sorry as I've traveled with it around the world, has really provided me with concrete evidence of the power of art and artists to shape/reframe the political discourse. Now I like to think of artists as individuals who have a vision for a better future, and use creative means of expression to try to articulate that vision to the rest of us.
JK: As someone who's worked in journalism, how do you see the line between journalism and art, especially considering AWW's project with the Sichuan earthquake?
AK: I think where that line is will depend on the "art" in question. In the case of an artistic endeavor like AWW's earthquake citizen's investigation, or my documentary film, it's important to apply journalistic standards to the gathering and presentation of information, especially if the artwork is presented as conveying facts and engaging with issues of transparency and truth.
JK: Has art in the west lost its power because it doesn't have a government trying to squash it?
AK: I don't think so, I think there are still plenty of topics and perspectives in the West that it takes courage to engage with because they are distasteful to the government, or an influential corporate power, or an entrenched moneyed interest. Lately I've been thinking that maybe the biggest oppressive force in the U.S. is the feeling that we are entrenched in an immutable status quo, that it is so impossible to make a change that we don't even bother expressing our opinion in the first place. To fight against that feeling with creative expression would certainly require a bold/powerful artist.
JK: Do you have any idea of the threats AWW received during his detention (AWW was arrested by the Chinese government and held for 81 days on charges of "economic crimes") that would make someone as outspoken as him refuse to talk about what happened to him?
AK: The most significant and potent threat to AWW right now is that he would be detained again for a longer period of time and kept from seeing his son grow up. He told me he is frequently reminded by authorities that they have the power to do it.
JK: Which of AWW's art pieces (physical or performance) has the most resonance for you?
AK: There really are so many, but I'll just mention one. I love his work Fairytale, when he brought 1001 Chinese people (who he found through his blog from diverse corners of the country) to Kassel, Germany for the art event Documenta in 2007. It was such an enormous undertaking to make sure the participants all had passports and visas, to bring them to Kassel and to house/feed them for the trip. And yet the whole point was just to set up these conditions and see what happened -- they didn't have to do a choreographed dance, or wear the same clothes, or do something "Chinese." The whole thing was captured in a several hours-long documentary film called Fairytale. It was the ultimate endorsement of individuality, it impacted the participants deeply and it became practically a legend in Germany. I showed Never Sorry in Kassel during this year's Documenta a few weeks ago, and I felt like I was walking on historic ground where this amazing experiment had happened.
JK: What do you see is the role of film documentaries in activism?
AK: I think documentaries are an important tool for recording and investigating stories that aren't being given enough attention, and many activists in China are already relying on documentary in large numbers. A documentary also has a unique ability to present a story with more intimacy and depth, and to bring the human aspect of a story into focus, enabling activists to make a stronger impression on an audience than a report or a news story would.
To find out where Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is playing near you, visit the film's official site.