07/27/2012 09:24 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ai Weiwei Documentary: 'Never Sorry' Director Alison Klayman Turns The Camera On China's Most Watched Artist

It's appropriate that a documentary on Ai Weiwei should open the day the Olympics begin. The artist's troubles can be traced back to the Games four years ago, when Ai rose to international prominence for his work on the Bird's Nest stadium, and then to more dangerous heights when he promptly distanced himself from China's "false Olympic smiles."

Three years, one Sichuan Earthquake and an Arab Spring later, Ai's Big Troubles began. While he was under detention by the Chinese government for 81 days, "Never Sorry" director Alison Klayman became the go-to source for news on his situation, a position she credits to an old roommate and a bit of good timing in an interview with The Huffington Post.

Interest in the news bites surrounding his story has predictably waned since the initial fervor, but Ai is still here, with the same, resounding message. This week, he reminded us once again that China excluded its people from its Olympics, and that London will be different.

As for himself, not much is different, the most recent turns in his story all hitting snags. In the year following Ai's release from detention, he's turned the surveillance cameras on himself, challenged a tax evasion case and had his passport taken away. The Chinese government responded true to form, shutting off said cameras and denying his tax counterclaim. As for his passport, they're still holding on to it, along with the reason why they won't return it.

Juxtaposed with his current stasis, Ai's dynamism in "Never Sorry" is all the more remarkable. Klayman got incredible access to the artist -- the film follows him everywhere from his face-to-face confrontations with Chinese authorities to an extramarital affair. For an artist who's usually defined by big gestures, the most telling parts of "Never Sorry" show Ai as he willingly wades through China's bureaucracy in laborious detail, all for our benefit.

Klayman sat down with The Huffington Post to discuss where China's problems really lie, the parts of "Never Sorry" she had to push to film, and dreaming of the day when Ai could do these Q and As himself.

What drew you to this project, and to Weiwei, in the first place?

The answer to all of those things that might normally be separately parsed out things for me ends up being one whole story. First of all, I didn't know about Ai Weiwei before I went to China. But in 2008 my roommate, Stephanie Tung, was working on curating the initial exhibition of his New York photographs. For months these binders with thousands of contact sheet images were around my house, and I would just get to look through them. So really that was my entry point into Ai Weiwei. And I think also a pretty convenient and fitting one for someone who's a young person living in gritty, romantic Beijing. Maybe that was the time when Chinese people are trying to get to New York and now is the time when young Americans are trying to go to Beijing. So there were a lot of parallels there. Anyways, I looked him up and looked at his blog, and looked up the stuff about the Olympics and the Bird's Nest and how he'd spoken out. So I'm not sure if I knew about that at the time, but this was just after the Olympics.

Were you planning to do a documentary when you went to China?

That was my aspiration in going abroad. I thought documentary was the next level of doing really good journalism. Which I don't know if I would call it exactly that now that I've done it, but I still believe that bringing journalistic skills and standards to a documentary is pretty important. And Stephanie knew I was keen to do that, and I'd just bought a camera because I'd worked for the Beijing Olympic website. And she said hey, you know what, we don't have a video for the exhibition, and it'd be really nice to tell more of these stories and talk about how photography fits into Ai Weiwei's overall art practice. So I think I was really lucky that I got grandfathered into the introduction, and I never had to -- at the outset -- do some kind of song and dance like, "this is me, I have this idea, and I want to do this project about you," or anything like that. It was a very good way to approach working with Ai Weiwei.

So when you were doing the video project, were you thinking in the back of your mind, this would be a great documentary?

Yeah, the two things I do remember thinking were first of all, he is a great character. People could watch him for longer than 20 minutes, you know, I want to spend time with him, and I think people really enjoy spending time with him. The second thing was just, whatever his story was, it also felt like something that would be significant, in terms of at the very least what people thought of contemporary China. To spend some time with Ai Weiwei and get to know him more, it seemed like things were gonna happen and they were gonna be of significance, and it would broaden people's ideas about China. And as he would talk about certain things, our conversations wandered, I started to get so much material that wasn't just about the New York photographs, that were about his blog, his upcoming earthquake campaign. So I did a mental check in my head like, OK I want to follow up with this guy, at the very least for a news story or something. Like when the earthquake anniversary comes up, I should come back here. I know I pitched it to a bunch of places, I was like this guy AI Weiwei, he's gonna do something, I don't know what it is. At that time I thought maybe it would be like an artwork, but he didn't come out with the backpack artwork until later, the publishing of the students' names, and then his blog got shut down, and the surveillance cameras got put up. So the seeds were there, but where it was all gonna go, whoever would've imagined.

You were talking about the type of work he's doing that's not necessarily physical art. Did you find in following him, did you see him more as an artist or more as a cultural commentator?

So that was a really big question for me. Some of the initial driving questions were, OK there's art and then there's activism. Are we seeing him jumping between these two? Is one bleeding into the other? Is he abandoning one for the other, what's going on with this. And what I came to decide after getting a lot of material and thinking, how would I answer this question now, is really that yes, he is a social commentator, he is a political organizer, but I don't ever think about it and I don't think he does either, like, OK I'm taking off my artist hat now, now I'm gonna put on my activist hat or my public intellectual hat. I really think that he always identified as, I'm an artist, by outlook, by profession. So what it's more about is his art and the artistic motivation and intention. It's really all about communication. I think that's his main work in life. What happens is he's just that good that not everything needs to be communicated in a fine art setting or in a museum. And I think actually because his artwork is sometimes incredibly mysterious or quiet, the commentary is not totally clear. It's about the methods of creating the work or the material that was used or the size of it. You couldn't say, oh this work is saying this. But it's unequivocal when he writes a tweet or puts up a funny picture that has no meaning. And maybe some things he decides are best communicated through an interview and it should be with the New York Times. I kind of see it all as like an artist, but that isn't to say he burps and that's an artwork.

You were talking about how you wanted to broaden views of contemporary China. I was watching your Colbert interview from last year, and he mentioned something like, "Do you think they'll kill him?" and you said, "do you really think they're that bad?" Do you think that people in America have a worse conception of how things are in China?

I'm still trying to get a handle on what the American perception is of China because I think I'm a little enmeshed in circles that are concerned with China. What I have seen though are all of those scary campaign commercials about how China's gonna take over the world, they're the future, they have our jobs. I really feel like that is the wrong thing to be worried about when you're worried about China. In Hollywood for example, it's a mad rush to get on that boat, and how come we're not hearing anybody [saying] no, because we don't like to bow down to the censorship restrictions of this country and art shouldn't be about conforming. I don't think enough people are talking about the reality on the ground in China in the way that Ai Weiwei and I hope this film does. It is talking about problems, but it's showing, it's giving evidence, an example of how there's a problem with law, there's a problem with transparency. I think that the more specific we can get about it, the better, rather than be like, this is an evil regime. Not to say that Weiwei wouldn't say those words, which is kind of funny, but he really knows what he's talking about, and I think there's not a lot of precise familiarity. I bet if you ask people how many Chinese figures could you name, I mean that alone is something I was thinking about. Maybe I'm wrong, tell me if I'm wrong. You could be like Yao Ming, Jackie Chan, but what if Ai Weiwei was now on people's lists? That is a really badass Chinese person to know.

Going back to the film, there were some unexpected personal turns in the story going on, like the whole affair. Was OK with that, did he give you any feedback, and basically how free were you to film what you wanted?

The area of his personal, family life was the main area where I felt like I had to push to get access to in a way that was harder than going with him to a police station. He never called me up and said, "I'm gonna go on this trip, you should come," but as long as I knew and asked if I could come, it was usually yes. Asking, "can I film you with your son when he was just born?" No. I got "no" for a very, very long time. And you see in the film how he responds to another journalist who asks to film his mom, right? So I see that as, he has an idea of personal space and privacy and he's protecting the other people in his life, and in the end there were boundaries. Most things were online, and he'll put himself naked online or whatever, but he did have certain lines, [and] I felt like [it] was my challenge to make sure I gave a little bit of that. In the end I lucked out that I was over one day when his mom came so I got to film with her. That was never something I pushed for. She came over and immediately I was like, gotta capitalize on this!

I liked the sneaky zoom-in shot in that scene.

That was the same thing where I guess she had already told me to turn it off but I was like, "what would Weiwei do?" Get the footage, and if he tells you later that he's offended and he doesn't want it in, then he'll tell me later, but you might as well. But filming, that was also something where he would talk more openly about it than if I had the camera on, cause at some point, I think I'm less interesting to him as an interviewer because I'm around a lot, so that's partly why it's beneficial to film him being interviewed by so many other people. In the end you really do learn a lot about his personal life through the way he responds to Evan Osnos, and the BBC reporter at the Tate. I think part of it is if I'd asked him, "OK now I want to ask you about your son," he would say, "that's personal, we're not going to talk about that." But part of that could be about our relationship, where he's like, "you film everything all the time and I know you know this, so why do you want me to talk about it?" Whereas if it's someone else, he might think they're genuinely asking. That's why sometimes it was better for someone else to ask because he'll just think, you're just trying to get me to perform this story for you. But in the end he didn't shy away, and Evan is the one who seems a little more nervous [asking about the affair]. It's something that had to be in the film because it's such an important part of his life.

Did you ever feel that you'd be in danger while you were filming him, or did you have to deal with the government at all?

Really the only times were those trips to Jiangdu, where the express purpose was to go to the seats of authority and file a complaint or a lawsuit or ask for an investigation and try to film it. I was never the only camera on that trip. Sometimes I was the only white person with a camera which is a different thing you have to be aware of, and maybe at certain locations we would say, "OK, Alison you stay in the car for this one, or you can come in for this one." And on those trips I always ran into people stopping me from filming or taking the camera or asking me to delete the footage -- all that happened. In the end, I never lost any important footage and it's really amazing what you get to see, I think, in a way where a pretty common reaction would be, "my god you couldn't do that in the U.S.," you couldn't film inside a police station or all those things. Which is really true, and I think it shows you that you can also sometimes get away with a lot -- [it's] a sort of loose situation there in a lot of ways. But my concern for myself pretty much maxed out at, I want to keep my footage. The overriding concern was the fact that I was traveling with all these Chinese citizens, and what if something happened and if they get detained it's no joke. I guess I felt like, I did have a journalist visa, which also might involve more scrutiny, but also I'm completely within my right to be reporting. And things honestly now are worse than they were in 2009 and 2010 in all of these respects, which is really a shame.

Are you in contact with Weiwei now, and do you have any sense of what his situation's like?

Yeah, I talked to him on the phone just last week. And obviously we don't do [phone calls] that much since it's all monitored, but he said, they don't give the passport back, they give you all kinds of reasons why you can't do this but it's so unclear what the real reason is, whose decision it is. And he sounded not like, I have a plan. It's just really like, he doesn't know what to do next. It's not just up to him, and it's totally not clear who it's up to and what he can do to make it better or what he could do to make it worse. I just think he's operating with so little information, and I think of everything as being really foggy. Before he was expert at pushing and really walking the line, and right now it's so foggy he doesn't know, is there a line? Did it just move? Am I on the other side already? You just don't know. I still hold out hope that China's so unpredictable, maybe tomorrow all of a sudden they'll be like, here you go, here's your passport, get out of here. There are so many combinations of outcomes, but right now we're really in stasis. It's really not any different from the day he was released in terms of what his situation is. They're still holding a lot of things over his head, and that's pretty effective.

Is he still able to work pretty freely on the projects he wants to?

Less. He's working on different projects, but less freely. When I was there last September, post-detention, we went out to the farther studio, and we were followed, which is not something that would happen before. That's just one example, but he's monitored and of interest in a different way than he was before. But he is definitely working on new works and has so many shows that are lined up or could potentially be lined up if he could say yes and know that he could send things. It's just way, way too much of a big question mark. And I really hoped that now, since we're after the anniversary of June 2, that I'd have more specific answers, but it's not any better than it was when the movie premiered at Sundance. The film was sort of designed to be evergreen, even though more things are gonna happen, but the sad thing is not that much new has happened. So it's kind of good , but I kind of wish we had to put a card in that said, "On June 22, they gave him back his passport," or that we could say to people, "he's gonna be at the opening." I mean, that would've been cool. Not that we were counting on it or anything, but wouldn't that be amazing? The day, that I hope happens someday in the future, where the movie ends and he comes out afterwards and does a Q&A. It's something I've always hoped would happen one day.

"Never Sorry" is out in limited released today. Go here for local listings.

Watch the trailer for "Never Sorry":

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry OFFICIAL TRAILER from Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry on Vimeo.