A year after being detained for three months by the Chinese government, artist and activist Ai Weiwei is still closely watched.
And yet the internationally recognized voice of individual and artistic freedom continues to use his Twitter feed to criticize his country’s government (his tweets are translated here). All of that can, frankly, seem like an abstraction to those of us halfway around the world and used to unfettered freedom of expression. Until, that is, you see Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a new documentary that manages to transcend news reports to make the world-famous political figure both real and complex (for instance, the 54-year-old artist has a wife of many years as well as a young child whom he fathered with another woman).
American Alison Klayman was living in China when she decided to follow Ai on film. The first-time filmmaker wound up being in the right place at the right (or, depending on your point of view, wrong) time. She not only captured some of Ai’s stunning work, such as the Munich installation in which he used children’s colored backpacks to represent the victims of the Sichuan province earthquake, she managed to be present in the aftermath of his beating by police, which has fueled his crusade for justice. “There was a lot more, sort of, action than I figured by meeting him,” says Klayman, who had been drawn to Ai by his art and the force of his personality. “It all became more essential than I ever expected.”
It’s essential in part because of Ai’s use of the Internet. “We talk about ‘the power of the Internet, but it can be a lot of talk,” says Klayman, who counts herself among those Westerners who have taken many of our most basic rights for granted. “It just feels like this is something that we have.” Even when Ai would talk to her early on about the power of the Internet to make change, Klayman wasn’t truly convinced. And then she saw it. She watched Ai sit down at his computer and become a figure of hope for a country filled with fear.
But as Klayman relays, even Ai had to come to that understanding. “He’s always been very media savvy, like, in terms of giving these interviews in English, getting to the heart of what he wants to say and really formulating this image of himself as a voice for others.” Klayman believes that what he’s doing is genuinely motivated by the values he preaches. “He really has reached a level of fame that he has chosen to use for this purpose. He doesn’t do these things in order to get fame. Why would you put yourself in this risk? It doesn’t make sense.”
Even Klayman was at risk at times during the making of this movie, though as an American that risk was limited. “I was an accredited journalist,” says Klayman, who stood by during more than one confrontation Ai had with authorities. And yet mostly she worried about being able to get the footage out of China. “I just felt like it would be pretty unprecedented for them to do something that much worse to me.”
Now that she’s finished, Klayman has a deep understanding of the power of the Internet. “I absolutely think it is the place, the only place, where there is hope that there will be positive change [in China]. There is going to be a forward momentum that can’t be denied.”
Ai Weiwei:Never Sorry opens in select theaters July 27.