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Read Me: Ai Weiwei and me

Alison Klayman, director of the new documentary about controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei tells TheJournal.ie that his future is still very uncertain.

Alison Klayman

In December 2008 Alison Klayman started videotaping Ai Weiwei, the Chinese contemporary artist and political activist, who uses his art to openly criticise the Chinese government. First time director, Klayman documented Weiwei’s preparation for major museum exhibitions while also witnessing and documenting intimate exchanges with family members and his increasingly public clashes with the Chinese government.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie’s Christina Finn, Klayman states her portrait of the artist looks at the character and charisma of this controversial artist while also providing a glimpse into contemporary China.

MY EXPERIENCE WAS a unique one. I was an aspiring documentary film-maker living in China ever since I had graduated.

My roommate in Beijing was curating an exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s photographs for a local gallery. She asked if wanted to make a film to accompany the show. I was a hopeful film-maker – I had just bought a camera so I jumped at the opportunity to get my feet wet obviously.

I was tasked to make a twenty minute video about photos he took in New York in the 1980s. He took over 10,000 photos during that time period.

While filming we got to know each other well and we got on. We discussed many issues such as censorship, his blog and his thoughts on the government.

My project just kind of evolved – I was accumulating a lot of material on him and it was he himself who came up with the idea of a documentary almost. He said to someone “well Alison is making documentary about me” – so I was like – awesome, we are on the same page here, as that is exactly what I wanted to do. It was good that it came about naturally.

He is so charismatic and I wanted that to come across onscreen. There had never been anything in depth done on him before, a few articles on his work and controversies but nothing that really conveyed his character.

The first few weeks working with him, I could have been more informed, but I just came at him with an open mind, a limited background and a lot of questions like – why are you so fearless, why do you do the things you do, because it was plain as day that he was so bold in his actions that he was taking risks speaking about China in ways that I had never encountered while living there.

I had lived there for a couple of years; I had spent a lot of time with Chinese people, so his attitude and opinions caught my attention. He told me that he was actually not fearless and that in fact he was very fearful. That is why he acts brave and does what he does. He told me that he recognised the danger and that it comes to him just like it comes to anyone else and that it’s why he feels he has to do what he does; he has to shine a light on things.

Learning about his biography, there were experiences that seemed to really impact on his life and set the stage for him to become someone who is very aware of how his political system can harm an individual and he recognises the flaws of the system.

Ai Weiwei painting the ceramic pieces that were featured in his Sunflower Seeds exhibition in the TATE Modern, London. (Image via Light House Cinema)

While I was filming I was always aware that there was a risk that was always there. One of the first questions I asked him when I first met him was “why are you not in jail?” His explanation was “I don’t know, maybe I will be tomorrow”. He is certainly not someone who lives his life like someone is out to get you; he doesn’t seem to be worried and acts fearless in that way.

During the shooting of the documentary I watched things escalate. He told me about his earthquake campaign and around the earthquake anniversary I figured that he was going to do something big.

(Following the catastrophic earthquake in the Sichuan Province, Weiwei had begun posting photographs of the disaster on his blog and discussing how poor construction of schools in Sichuan led to the deaths of thousands of students. The Chinese government released the number of students killed, without any names attached.)

Weiwei released the names of the kids – his blog was shut down and he had surveillance cameras put on him, he had plain clothes officers following him. There was already that escalation but when he had to have his operation in Munich that was the pinnacle for me where I realised what he was doing had danger attached.

(Weiwei created the installation Remembering on the façade of the Haus der Kunst. It was constructed from nine thousand children’s backpacks. They spelled out the sentence “She lived happily for seven years in this world” in Chinese characters – this was a quote from a mother whose child died in the Sichuan Province earthquake. Two months before the opening of this exhibition Weiwei suffered a severe beating from Chinese police in Chengdu. He underwent surgery for cerebral haemorrhage in a Munich hospital four weeks after being beaten.)

(Via Light House Cinema)

His injuries in Chengdu were very serious, but to see the reaction of the art world crowd was the first time I had really felt his fame in a way. That trip was definitely like – wow – this is more than just an interesting story about a man who will transform people’s ideas of China, there was actually going to be some action and I am going to have to tell that story.

On 3 April 2011, Weiwei was arrested at Beijing’s airport while waiting for a flight to Hong Kong. The Chinese government has declared he was under investigation for alleged economic crimes.

At that point I had already stopped finished shooting. I had been in the US editing and we were hoping to have a rough cut to show Weiwei, he was supposed to come a month later to an opening of his exhibition. When I heard what had happened, that he had been arrested, it was totally shocking. Even though you know that the risk was always there, that was an unprecedented strike against him.

The documentary ends with this closing chapter in his life but his immediate future is unclear. The big question is, is this a blip, will he ever be able to go back to normal?

I think there is hope. I hope he does get back his passport and things will relax and he can keep doing the things he does in China, without any guarantee of safety of course, but that is what he wants to do.

Alison Klayman and Ai Weiwei. (Via Light House Cinema)

If he can’t keep creating and travelling, as travelling is vital for his career and the art that he does, as no one sees his art in China as he can’t exhibit there, so traveling is a pretty big part of his life. They have not yet returned his passport and they are not indicating if they will. He is still in the position where he does not know what future holds, but it is important that it gets resolved and soon, so that he can keep on creating, not just for China but for the world.


(Via YouTube/)

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is now screening exclusively in the Light House Cinema, Dublin. To book tickets please click here.

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Alison Klayman

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