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June 3, 2011 8:43 pm

Ai and I

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Filmmaker Alison Klayman tells Rahul Jacob about her documentary portrait of the imprisoned artist
 
Alison Klayman and Ai Weiwei

Alison Klayman and Ai Weiwei

For the American documentary filmmaker Alison Klayman, the first 24 hours after Ai Weiwei was arrested on April 3 at Beijing airport were a bewildering time. She had been in touch with him almost daily since she began working on a film about him in late 2008 while she was living in Beijing; in the days after the arrest, even when she went to sleep, she did so with Skype on next to her head.

“If I didn’t see him, we would be in touch on Twitter,” she says, still sounding disbelieving, although we are speaking a month after his arrest. “Twenty-four hours was a long time not to have heard from him.”

Even though Ai had posted more than 60,000 entries on Twitter before he was detained, a message from him never came. Instead, over a month went by before his wife was finally allowed to see him. Then, on May 20, Chinese police alleged that a company controlled by the artist had evaded “large amounts of taxes”.

An article in the state-controlled Global Times within days of his arrest stated the case against Ai more pithily: “Ai Weiwei does as he pleases and often does what others dare not. He himself ... realised he was never far away from the red line of Chinese law.”

Like many young American journalists, Klayman moved to China straight after graduation. After finishing her degree at Brown University in Rhode Island in 2006 she worked as a freelancer in China until 2010, doing work for the well-respected US public radio programme All Things Considered and other outlets.

The irony is that the documentary Klayman set out to make about Ai – Never Sorry, to be released this autumn – was also about the freedoms Chinese citizens enjoy today. There is, she says, a “multitude of realities in China” – hence the dichotomy of a communist state that also allowed its most famous artist and activist to criticise the leadership. “The film is about this police state and the lack of freedom but it is also about an artist who lives his life to the fullest and travels to the west and says what he wants to on Twitter,” she says.

Offering an elegant teaser of the material she has collected for Never Sorry, Klayman’s 18-minute video Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei? was aired on the US’s Public Broadcasting Service channel just days before Ai’s detention. (The title has become a rallying cry in Hong Kong, where it has featured as graffiti and on T-shirts given away at last week’s art fair.) Watching the short video, one feels as if Klayman’s camera followed the artist everywhere.

She trailed after him to the areas recovering from the devastating Sichuan earthquake in May 2008, where he started a project to gather the names of the more than 5,000 schoolchildren who died in poorly constructed government schools. (The roll call of victims forms a deceptively attractive wallpaper in his studio in Beijing.) In doing so, Ai infuriated the local government because he and other activists wanted the officials involved to be held responsible. She was witness to a scene in April 2010 at a police station in Chengdu, Sichuan’s provincial capital, where Ai demanded an explanation of why, the previous August, he had been attacked in his hotel room by the police. The beating had led to Ai being rushed to hospital with cerebral bleeding in September 2009, when he was in Munich – with Klayman – for the opening of his first major exhibition.

It is a testament to her precocious skill as a documentary-maker that Klayman, 26, manages to come up with material that is fresh and often moving despite the fact that her subject was so often followed by other cameras, not least his own. At the Chengdu police station, Ai was filming his complaint to the police while the New Yorker’s China correspondent, Evan Osnos, then working on a long profile of the artist, and other journalists were also in attendance.

Ai’s reputation for self-publicity and his adept use of social media made Klayman sceptical. “I went in every day [thinking] ‘Is he for real? Is he manipulating the camera?’” she recalls. “I was won over. He believes what he says. He doesn’t have to do what he does to be a famous artist.” She came away with the impression that Ai did not see himself as an activist, but rather that he felt that “if you are not taking the mantle of being an artist and therefore communicating with the larger society, you aren’t doing your job.”

This was brought home to her when she asked Ai what represented the big turning point in his life. Ai could have spoken about growing up in the desolately beautiful western province of Xinjiang, where his father, a revered poet, was banished to a labour camp. Or he could have spoken about the killing of demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989, or even his years in New York in the early 1980s. (A collage of wonderfully carefree, even sophomoric photographs of the artist as a young man in New York, posing nude one moment and photographing Allen Ginsberg the next, has recently been published in one of Hong Kong’s newspapers as one of many celebrations of the artist in the past few weeks.) Instead, Ai replied that getting on the internet had been the defining moment of his life.

“At the time I thought it was glib, such a technology-boostery answer,” she says. “Later, I thought that the internet years of Ai Weiwei are a transformative period. It was a platform that led to so many things.”

A vivid example of this is a very public dinner party Ai organised last year in Chengdu by declaring on Twitter that he was going to a restaurant renowned for its pig’s trotter in broth. The incident was a distillation both of Ai’s genius for political theatre and his wacky sense of humour. Not only did he pick a speciality that would resonate in a city of foodies, but he told the policemen who urged him to move the gathering inside the restaurant that al fresco dining was the best way to savour the local delicacy. He was joined by people from all walks of society in a moving show of support, even as the police cameras rolled.

Ai’s bravado founders when his mother, Gao Ying, is interviewed in his presence. “I’m proud of him because he speaks out for the average person,” Gao, 78, says. Then she says she wishes he were a more conventional artist because she wouldn’t have to worry about him. “If he was wrong, I could tell him he was wrong but he’s not wrong, so what can I tell him?” Gao chokes up and turns away from the camera; Ai, the performance artist who roguishly revels in provoking the police, is momentarily undone and unable to speak before he gently tells her not to upset herself unduly.

Klayman had intended to end her documentary at the opening of Ai’s Sunflower Seeds installation at Tate Modern last October, but that was before the film was overtaken by events. A multitude of events, in fact – the demolition of Ai’s studio in Shanghai late last year, the disappearance of activists and lawyers in China in the crackdown over the past few months and finally Ai’s arrest.

Klayman, who was in post-production on her documentary, has had to keep adding to it. “We are in a different situation now [in China] than we were six months ago,” Klayman says, worrying aloud about whether she will be allowed to return. “This film wasn’t about a person in jail. My work hasn’t changed. The context has.”

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