Filmmaker forges intimate portrait of artist-activist Ai Weiwei

In 2010, Alison Klayman sat in a car in Chengdu, China, with her camera rolling as the internationally renowned conceptual artist and dissident Ai Weiwei scuffled with police, who were pushing and pulling at him and his entourage. The melee had erupted as Ai was attempting to file a lawsuit against the policeman who had beaten him so severely a year earlier that he had suffered a life-threatening cranial hemorrhage, requiring surgery to remove the blood from his brain.

“The moment when my camera fuzzed out is because one of the plainclothes officers came over to the car and grabbed my camera,” said Klayman, 27, whose award-winning documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” opens in Los Angeles on Aug. 3. “My goal was to keep my footage and not have him look at it and turn me in.” So Klayman was prepared. As the officer approached, she deftly switched out her tape with a blank one, which the official promptly confiscated. She had become adept at this kind of bait and switch after authorities had previously confronted her in the process of making her film about China’s most famous artist-activist. Ai is probably best known for creating the Beijing Nation Stadium, also known as the “Bird’s Nest,” for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but his sculpture also has been in museums throughout the world, including a recent installation on the courtyard at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“At the time, it was really scary,” Klayman recently recalled of the Chengdu confrontation from her home in New York, where she moved after following Ai for three years to make her debut film. “I didn’t know if everybody I was with was about to be detained. I was very nervous, not so much for my personal safety, but for everyone I was with who were Chinese citizens.”

“Never Sorry” introduces the charismatic Ai as he prepares for his 100 million sunflower seed installation at the Tate Modern in London while launching his campaign to discover the names of children killed in the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, their deaths a result of shoddy government construction. The heartbreaking images of children’s belongings in the rubble inspired Ai’s giant mural of 9,000 colorful backpacks on display outside his 2009 exhibition, “So Sorry,” in Munich. 

The documentary also follows the Web-savvy artist as he continues to tweet mocking messages about his government, despite escalating police surveillance. Officials shut down his blog and raze his newly built Shanghai studio even as Time magazine votes him a runner-up for person of the year and ArtReview names him the world’s most influential artist in 2011. In April of that year, the film shows the activist disappearing into custody on dubious charges of tax evasion, where he suffers psychological torture during 81 days in jail — all while a global campaign explodes on his behalf.

Alison Klayman

Klayman was an underemployed freelance journalist when she began shooting a short film on Ai without pay in 2008, and she had no idea that the artist-architect-photographer would, over the course of filming, become China’s most renowned cause célèbre. Hers was, perhaps, a textbook case of being in the right place at the right time: “I did not go to China to find Ai Weiwei, nor did I even know who he was,” she said. In fact, back in 2006, Klayman had little interest in Asia, hardly spoke a word of Chinese and didn’t even own a camera when, on a lark, she accompanied a fellow Brown University graduate to visit the friend’s relatives in Shanghai.

Klayman had grown up a world away, in a Conservative Jewish home in suburban Philadelphia, where she attended the Akiba-Barrack Jewish Day School and became fluent in Hebrew. Her mother, a native Yiddish speaker, was born to Polish Holocaust survivors in Israel; while Klayman’s grandparents spoke little about their experiences in a series of camps, she said, “The subject loomed large in our family.” So did the Jewish concepts of “social justice, chesed and tikkun olam. … When you grow up with the Holocaust as part of your [legacy], you’re raised on the idea that you have to speak out, and that staying silent about injustice contributes to the injustice.”

It’s a worldview that, in part, would connect her with the outspoken Ai, whose own father was imprisoned and forced to perform hard labor during the Cultural Revolution. But Klayman’s journey to China, she said, “was the most random thing ever.”

She had hoped to see the world and jump-start her journalism career when her classmate invited her to Shanghai in 2006; five months later, Klayman moved to Beijing, where she sustained herself, in part, by serving as China’s correspondent for JTA and writing for this newspaper, among other publications. She found a home away from home within the Kehillat Beijing congregation, where she tutored five young women for their b’nai mitzvah and also co-founded the city’s Moishe House for Jewish programming with her American roommate, Stephanie Tung.

It was Tung, who was helping to curate an exhibition of Ai’s New York photographs, who brought Klayman in to make a 20-minute video about the artist four years ago. By that time, Klayman knew that Ai had designed the lauded “Bird’s Nest” stadium and then had denounced the Olympic Games as Communist Party propaganda. Even so, she said: “Early on, he was talking about the government in ways that haunted me. I was thinking, ‘How are you able to do the things that you do, and how are you not in jail?’ ”

When the artist allowed Klayman to continue filming him after his photography exhibition, she accompanied him to Munich, where excruciating headaches as a result of his Chengdu beating landed him in the hospital. “Never Sorry” shows Ai in his sickbed holding up the bag of blood that had been extracted from his skull. 

Klayman surmises that she was able to follow the artist within China because she was not a prominent journalist from an outlet like CNN, which meant she was beneath the government’s radar.

When Ai was arrested in April 2011, the debut filmmaker realized she had unprecedented footage of China’s most famous missing person; for weeks she stayed up late into the night to Skype with Ai’s assistants, as his Beijing studio was raided and his possessions searched. Klayman phoned Ai the night he was released: “He was subdued, exhausted and clearly relieved to just be home,” she said. Her documentary ends as the artist-provocateur wanly tells reporters that he cannot speak to them as a condition of his bail, then firmly shuts his studio door.

“Now that we’re a little farther out, we know he’s not completely broken, but at that moment it felt like [he was], and it was crushing,” Klayman said, adding that Ai went on to violate his bail conditions by speaking out on Twitter and in op-ed pieces.

Even after those conditions were lifted on June 22, Ai is still not allowed to leave China and has been ordered to pay $2.4 million in tax fees. He also faces possible charges including bigamy and pornography. “He’s still living in total uncertainly,” Klayman said. Therefore, the timeliness of her work is all the more front-and-center. “It’s important to me that the documentary will help keep people aware.”

“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” opens on Aug. 3 in Los Angeles.