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Jan Cao

Portrait of a Gadfly — Interview with Filmmaker of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

[See here for Tea Leaf Nation's previous coverage of Ai Weiwei and his use of social media]

One artist, 90 Minutes, 5196 children, 9000 backpacks, 81 days in prison and 40 cats, one of them can open the door. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is a short documentary, but it covers many different aspects of the famous Chinese artist-and-dissident’s life and work. 

At the very beginning of the film, a cat jumps up to reach the handle and opens the door. Ai comments, “Cats can open the door, but only men can close it.” What does he mean? The 28-year-old documentary filmmaker Alison Klayman leaves the question to her audience. She spent two years shadowing Ai with her camera, going to two of his most ambitious shows, “So Sorry” in Haus der Kunst Münich (2009) and “Sunflower Seeds” at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall in London (2010). In the Munich show, Ai presented an installation of 9,000 backpacks, reminiscent of the 5196 dead and missing in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. From afar the backpacks spell out a quote from one of the mothers, who lost her daughter in the earthquake: “She lived happily for seven years in this world.”

Ai Weiwei's installation of backpacks in Munich - forming the Chinese characters "She lived happily for seven years in this world."

Who is Ai Weiwei? For Klayman, the answer is far more complicated than the audience might expect. He is a performance artist who lived in New York for more than ten years, an architect who helped design the “Bird’s Nest,” also known as the National Stadium built for the Beijing Olympics, but later spoke against the Beijing Games, and a dissident who is depicted as a “hooligan” by his artist friend Chen Danqing. He is also son of famous Chinese poet Ai Qing, husband of artist Lu Qing, and father of a three-year-old sweet young boy. He likes cats and ice-cream. 

Shortly after Klayman graduated from Brown University with a degree in history, she went to China looking for an opportunity as a freelance journalist. She started by shooting a short video to accompanying an exhibition of Ai’s photographs, and ended up producing a 90-minute documentary that won the special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Ai Weiwei and his sunflower seeds at Tate Modern

The title, “Never Sorry,” was a play on the title of Ai’s Munich show, according to the director. “Never sorry seemed more like his attitude,” said Klayman in an interview with Tagesspiegel, “Our fans on Twitter helped come up with the Chinese translation, ‘道歉你妹.’ Many suggestions were gathered, and this was the crowd favorite.” The Chinese phrase means, roughly, ”Sorry? [Expletive] Your Sister.”

“Never Sorry” is a detailed portrait of Ai Weiwei, especially of his belief in freedom of speech and his deep concerns for his country. It also explains how this outspoken artist and dissident is able to inspire global audiences against a backdrop of strict censorship. Klayman quotes Ai’s own words about how he is expecting the audiences to do after watching this film: “…They will first have some knowledge about who I am and what kind of issues I am always concerned about as an artist. I think they should really think that freedom of expression is very valuable, and they should treasure this right.”

Filmmaker Alison Klayman

But this film isn’t just about Ai’s role as a public intellectual. Klayman manages to show some of Ai’s personal moments with his family and friends. She doesn’t avoid presenting him as a man with flaws, either — Ai had his only son through an extra-marital affair. “It was important to show Ai Weiwei as a father, not only because his son plays a crucial role in his life, but also because it’s one of the major reasons why authorities are now able to put more pressure on him,” says Klayman. “Without getting too much into his personal life, it was also important not to hide the truth, and to show that Weiwei is not a superhuman. He is a real person.”

A pedestrian walks past a graffiti of detained Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei in Hong Kong

Although Ai declined to provide too much of his personal opinions about this film, seeing it more as Klayman’s own piece, “Never Sorry” is actually the product of close team work. Zhao Zhao, Ai’s personal assistant, has contributed some clips to this documentary. Zhao, an artist and videographer himself, has helped producing some of Ai’s documentary films including “Lao Ma Ti Hua” (Disturbing the Peace, 2009) and “Gupi De Ren” (A Lonely Man, 2010). He is seen in “Never Sorry” filming the policemen’s camera when they were filming Ai having dinner with his fans in Lao Ma Ti Hua, a restaurant in Chengdu. 

As a foreign journalist, Klayman had been less involved herself in the often complicated confrontations with authorities. “Sometimes Weiwei or his lawyers would tell me to wait in the car, while they went to places like the police stations for the first time. It was not because of concern for my safety, but rather for the Chinese citizens I was traveling with, ” explains Klayman. “I admire both Zhao Zhao’s art and the fearless way he documents on Weiwei’s behalf,” so describes Klayman her co-worker, calling him “the hero in my film.”

Ai Weiwei - Map of China

Zhao as an artist is nothing like the quiet, calm cameraman as seen in Klayman’s film. He once stole metal from Anselm Kiefer’s “Library” installation, formerly on view in the main hall of the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum Berlin, and cast it into a one Euro coin. The Hamburger Bahnhof Museum at first saw this incident as a humiliation and wanted to sue the rebellious young man, but the museum ended up buying this piece back as part of their collection. “They have good security system, but, you know, I have my own ways,” said Zhao, who believes that “aesthetics should give rise to new possibilities.” Last year, his solo show “Walking Naked” attracted curious Berlin audience to Alexander Ochs Gallery to look at contemporary Chinese art from a refreshingly new and critical perspective.

The 30-year-old videographer from Xinjiang sees Klayman’s first feature documentary as a job well done. “Alison is patient and calm. She has captured many valuable moments, and I think she did all that a documentary director should be doing in the making of ‘Never Sorry.’” In Zhao’s eyes, Ai is an artist in every aspect of his life. “Some people see everything he does as more or less a performance art piece, others see himself as a piece of art. They are right in some aspects: Weiwei doesn’t separate his personal life from his artist life. His life is a performance. But I also think what he has been reacting against what happens everyday in China is what everyone should be doing. He is just more famous than others. He receives a lot of attention.” 

Zhao worked closely with Ai for more than seven years, but recently ended their cooperation, “The state police told us to stop working together after they released him from prison. That’s all.” Ai was arrested at Beijing Airport when he was trying to leave the country, held in a Beijing prison for 81 days and then placed under house arrest for a year. He was charged with “economic crimes.” However, Zhao doesn’t sound upset, “We are still in contact.”

Even after filming over 200 hours for this project, the first-time director realizes that there is still so much more to say. “But I think this film was the most essential 90 minutes to first introduce worldwide audiences to Ai, both as an artist and a remarkable human being.” Klayman seems to be satisfied with her first debut feature documentary.

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Jan Cao

Jan Cao is a senior and a comparative literature concentrator at Brown. She loves watching Japanese TV dramas and cooking.
  • Cultural Imperialist

    a bit off-topic, but I notice that the sculpture “Map of China” includes Taiwan: I guess Ai isn’t sorry about supporting the Indisputable Unity of the Motherland™.

    (I wonder if the map also includes Sikkim etc)

    • eeeee

      I think it does include Arunachai Pradesh; although not knowing the exhibit, it could very well be a satire…just because an artist depicts something doesn’t necessarily means he/she supports it…

  • Cultural Imperialist

    a bit off-topic, but I notice that the sculpture “Map of China” includes Taiwan: I guess Ai isn’t sorry about supporting the Indisputable Unity of the Motherland™.

    (I wonder if the map also includes Sikkim etc)

    • eeeee

      I think it does include Arunachai Pradesh; although not knowing the exhibit, it could very well be a satire…just because an artist depicts something doesn’t necessarily means he/she supports it…

  • Wayne

    This Ai Weiwei is a complete degenerate. But I suppose that is what passes for ‘art’ these days —painting ‘Fuck’ on one’s chest with red paint —–what a fucking genius!!!!!

    Must be Leonardo reincarnated eh???????

    Note the absolute degeneracy, and disgustingness of these creatures the West loves to put on a pedestal —- simply anthropoid refuse. I’m sure China will be better off under the rule of the likes of Ai Weiwei right???

    • eeeee

      Sigh, another self-righteous moral prick. What makes him degenerate? Do you even know that the word means? Have you ever lived in a society where the government censors you whenever you use a profanity?

  • Wayne

    This Ai Weiwei is a complete degenerate. But I suppose that is what passes for ‘art’ these days —painting ‘Fuck’ on one’s chest with red paint —–what a fucking genius!!!!!

    Must be Leonardo reincarnated eh???????

    Note the absolute degeneracy, and disgustingness of these creatures the West loves to put on a pedestal —- simply anthropoid refuse. I’m sure China will be better off under the rule of the likes of Ai Weiwei right???

    • eeeee

      Sigh, another self-righteous moral prick. What makes him degenerate? Do you even know that the word means? Have you ever lived in a society where the government censors you whenever you use a profanity?