Documentary on Chinese artist opens MountainSummit in Aspen
August 23, 2012
ASPEN – Alison Klayman didn’t make her first documentary film, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” so much to educate an audience. Klayman’s primary interest was to educate herself.
Klayman had lived in China for more than two years already when, in December 2008, she was presented with the opportunity to make a video about Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist and dissident, and his exhibition at the Three Shadows Contemporary Art Center in Beijing.
Klayman speaks Mandarin and, as a Beijing correspondent for a London-based news radio station and a variety of American news outlets, had taken a close look at issues in China. But the prospect of spending time with Ai was an irresistible path to expanding her understanding of the country. So after filming the 20-minute video for the museum show, Klayman simply kept hanging around Ai and kept her camera on.
“There were a lot of questions I had about him,” the 28-year-old Klayman, who was raised in the Philadelphia area and studied at Brown University, said from New York City. “To spend some time would be enlightening, and it would provide a lot of new takes on China. I had been living there for a few years, but meeting him made me think new thoughts on China. You hear his musings for an hour while he’s making art or cooking a meal. You see the place in a different way.”
Ai was born in Beijing in 1957; his father was a poet and painter who fell out of favor with the Communist Party and was sent into exile. Ai attended the Beijing Film Academy and associated himself with China’s avant-garde artists. From 1981 to 1993, he lived in the U.S., spending most of that time in New York City as a photographer and intellectual. His first solo exhibition, in 1985, was titled “Old Shoes – Safe Sex.” During the student protest and the resulting government crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989, he protested outside the U.N.
In 1993, Ai returned to Beijing, where he built a career as an architect. He also earned an underground reputation for publishing books about avant-garde art in China and for curating the controversial 2000 exhibition “FUCK OFF” in Shanghai. He became more widely known for collaborating in the design of the Beijing National Stadium, better known as the Bird’s Nest, for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, and came to real prominence when he began denouncing the Olympics as political propaganda.
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Klayman met Ai late in 2008, a few months after the Olympics. But “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” – which shows Thursday at 6:15 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House, opening the fourth annual MountainSummit: Mountainfilm in Aspen – begins with another momentous event, both for China and for Ai. In May 2008, a powerful earthquake hit western Sichuan province. Among the thousands of buildings that collapsed were several schools, cheaply built with what the Chinese call “tofu construction.” Ai responded with the Sichuan Earthquake Names Project, which defied the Chinese government by collecting and posting the names of the more than 5,000 schoolkids who died in the earthquake.
The rebellious stance puts Ai in an interesting position. He is well out front as a provocateur; a central episode in “Never Sorry” follows Ai as he files a complaint of police brutality in the station that houses the police accused of beating him. Later, his studio in Shanghai, an acclaimed building he designed, is demolished by the government, and then he is taken into custody.
But Klayman says that Ai is also representative of the thinking of ordinary Chinese, even if he uses extreme measures to express those thoughts.
“I think the issues he’s talking about, it would be difficult to find people who really disagree with him,” said Klayman, who earned a special Spirit of Defiance jury prize at the Sundance Festival earlier this year. “They might misunderstand him as a troublemaker figure. They might say, ‘You have to wait; you have to be more patient.’ But they hear him talking about personal expression, freedom, individual dignity, human rights. Unless you’re talking to a foreign-ministry person, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who says, ‘Oh, we’re doing just fine on all these issues.’ He’s a more extreme figure on where we need to improve.”
Another example of Ai being out front on issues came around the time of the Beijing Olympics. Ai began talking repeatedly about the power of the Internet and social media as tools for organized protest.
“This was before the Arab Spring, and it was hard to appreciate what he was saying,” Klayman said. “But he’s about the next thing; he realizes what’s going to become big before it becomes big. He’s a forward-thinking person.”
The ninth annual Beijing Independent Film Festival took place earlier this week. More accurately, it was almost held. During the opening screening – “Egg and Stone,” a film about sexual abuse in a rural Chinese family, which earned a Tiger Award at the Rotterdam International Film Festival – the electricity went out, and the presentation was interrupted. Reports say that the authorities promised to restore power but never did.
Given that climate, Klayman doubts that “Never Sorry” will have proper screenings anytime soon. But on Tuesday she got a message from a journalist friend in Beijing saying that images of copies of the DVD had appeared on the Chinese version of Twitter. There have been informal screenings of the film, including screenings that Ai has held in his studio.
“I think the appetite is really strong,” Klayman said. “There are a lot of people eager to see this film.”