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Up Against The Great Wall! Ai Weiwei Challenges China for Change

By Denise O'Kelly

Director/producer Alison Klayman's debut film, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Prod.: Adam Schlesinger), follows the celebrated Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei over a two-year period, gaining unprecedented access to his life and work, as he challenges Chinese authorities with his provocative art and through his confrontational online presence. Ai Weiwei is arrested, detained and released in the film, but what Klayman captures is a testament to the power of the artist in speaking truth to oppression. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry earned a Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Defiance at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and last month, Sheffield Doc/Fest defied a Chinese delegation's demands to stop the film from being shown.  

We caught up with Klayman as she was preparing for the film's showing at Silverdocs. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry opens in theaters July 27 through Sundance Selects.


Photo: Alison Klayman

Documentary: Ai Weiwei comes across as very balanced, strategic, thoughtful, gifted, considerate, certain, yet patient--albeit that his "creative" actions have a galvanizing effect on his fans and an incendiary one on his detractors. This was quite an undertaking!

Alison Klayman: I wanted to make a movie about a creative and principled artist, willing to make calculated risks to push society to grapple with its own shortcomings. Ai Weiwei is a charismatic figure who, in his personal dynamism, embodies the multitude of experiences and realities in China, and, while recognizing that China has changed somewhat, is dedicating his life to the cause of greater, more widespread and sustained improvement. I want to give people a chance to spend time with Weiwei, listen to his voice and his opinions, see his flaws, and experience the conditions of his life. The goal is to allow audiences to evaluate Weiwei's choices and, hopefully, be inspired by his courage and humanity. 

But Never Sorry is not just about Weiwei, or China. I hope this film will move audiences to interrogate themselves: What is my vision for a better future? What would I risk to express myself? The most powerful impact this film can have is to mobilize a new crop of outspoken artists, activists and citizens to put into effect a strong vision for improving the future in their respective societies.


D: The metaphor of the cat is both a potent and poignant one: "One cat opens the door and then the door cannot be closed." Ai Weiwei is gentle with the cat on his design table when it wants to play with the building sticks. Like a playful cat, he toys with the Chinese government to attract their attention. Their reaction to him has been less indulgent.

AK: In some ways the cat was not even a planned metaphor. On entering his studio, you notice how many cats there are. I was interested in hitting the audience with the calm, casual sense of his ground level. The powerful image of a cat does not so much offer a specific reference to what he is doing--communicating, engaging, encouraging others--it is more about him enabling things so that there are places for others to go, advance towards, to see what else will, and can, come through the door he has opened for them.


Photo: Alison Klayman

D: The beauty of his exquisite and masterful design for the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium in Beijing was tainted for him by the Party propaganda he witnessed. His subsequent defiant volte-face placed him in the international spotlight and under relentless scrutiny by the Chinese authorities.

AK: That was the point at which I started filming him, in 2008. It was a transformational time. Having never used a computer before 2005, he began a blog remarkable for its frank and politically incendiary opinions. The government shut down this blog in 2009, but by then he had already established himself as an online icon--a role he continues to play through Twitter. That same year, Weiwei opened his largest solo exhibition, in Munich, and, after a lifetime of vowing that he didn't want children, also became a father. To cap everything off, there was his arrest in 2011. Ai's 81-day detention amplified his story symbolically and in the press. His release made news around the world, and people who may never have heard his name suddenly became familiar with his face and his cause. As China develops commercially, its judicial and political systems remain unaltered. Ai recognizes that it takes time for mounting pressure and demand to make governments, systems and people change. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry brings the man, his history and his country into focus.


D. Now with a son of his own, his Achilles' heel is more apparent to government officials. Can you speak to the generational chain and how it connects his family to his work?

AK: While trying to comprehend the man he is today, his relationship to his parents seemed a very critical element of his activist biography. His father's poetry is still in everyone's textbooks; both old and young alike know his poems. Weiwei also made his way as an artist. Living in New York, his relationship to the artistic truth developed as a student of Warhol and Duchamp. His father's legacy is that of an exiled, once prominent, parent who suffered at the hands of the very party he had striven to support and by whom he, along with his family, was cruelly rejected.  The ambiguity that Weiwei has about his family is infused with a sense of apparent detachment. His mother is concerned and doting; he tells her everything will be fine. Equally, he doesn't feel that his father pushed things far enough. Perhaps he is trying to make up for lost time. Only sometimes will he acknowledge how very clearly his father's story and family existence has nurtured his daring and drive. He wants to set himself apart from his idealistic father by creating more tangible change, in his own lifetime. His brother is also an activist, and a very eloquent novelist. He makes wry and enlightening observations on their youth.  With the world now watching, as a media savvy artist/activist, Ai's responses to questions carry weight because he is constantly considering what is the best representation of the truth.  The more Ai can set in motion now for change in the future will affect the lives of everyone, including of course his own son, an additional catalyst.


D: Ai Weiwei's approach to his art, and response to the Chinese government, is equal parts grit and whimsy: Giving the finger in numerous pictures; filming people, including himself, cursing the Chinese government in a gamut of dialects. How has your documentary been received?

AK: Weiwei believes in personal accountability. Say what you say plainly and take full responsibility for it. Do not censor yourself. The documentary is highly anticipated online and on Twitter, Chinese nationals who live abroad are posting about it online. Those who remain in China Tweet every day asking where the download link is. I have friends who are on the lookout for the first sighting of a Chinese bootlegged version in China!

Politically, people have felt that the movie was a fair look at him--unbiased, not anti-China, but balanced. For some, watching the film has been a conversion experience, giving it all a fair shake, and that, frankly, is a lot about what Ai Weiwei is trying to do. I don't think it will ever be seen by the public in mainland China, only on YouTube or online, which is just a few people--less than 0.1 percent who can jump technically over the Great Firewall and watch it. But still, that's very important; the effort is important only because it's so difficult.




D: Have you come up against any barriers that surprised you?

AK: The most recent example that comes to mind is the Art and Cinema for Peace Gala at the Berlinale. This year our film was being highlighted as part of the Gala.  The organizers told me--and also said publicly--that they were really surprised by the normal staples of sponsors mysteriously becoming very, very busy when the requests were sent, then finally declining. Some of their funders said one thing to them and another thing publicly. Funding came in privately because they didn't want to generate any awkwardness with China--art being compromised by The China Issue. Ironic, really.

Making a documentary like this, in some ways it was an easy road and in some ways now, it's a hard road. Also, there was a Chinese delegation of TV editors at Sheffield Doc/Fest who boycotted the festival because it refused to take both my film and another one out of the program. The government may not like it, but Ai Weiwei is not that polarizing of a figure, unless they make him one. Not like the Dalai Llama, over whom people refuse to do business.  By comparison with the rest of the world, few people in China even know anything about him.

This movie could be seen as a document about Chinese history, but right now it is not clear that it is heading in that direction. Weiwei wants the government and the officials and the police to see it in order to effect self-evaluation. The theme of denial and self-evaluation, for everyone, is a core one in this documentary.  For Weiwei, it is a personal but also a societal issue, and the work he is doing focuses on individual accountability, transparency and the injustices that are committed in the name of the law. His concern lies in the owning up to mistakes so as to engender improvement. It is not about overthrowing or regime change, but about having the system live up to its standards.


D: Can you update me as to his current status? 

AK: Ai Weiwei is still in a very tenuous position. Although his "bail conditions" were lifted on June 22 (marked by an official piece of paper delivered to him), his passport and ability to travel outside China have not been returned to him, and it is completely unclear why. This is a very difficult way for him (or anyone) to live, to be utterly unsure how to proceed with his regular activities--creating art, traveling for work, speaking to press--- and what if anything is permitted or will help remedy his situation.


Alison Klayman, director/producer/cinematographer of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.


Denise O'Kelly is a writer and editor living in Santa Monica.