Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

by director Alison Klayman

You could say I came to this story organically, or gradually, serendipitously, or maybe even by accident. When I graduated from college in 2006 I wanted to travel abroad to have adventures and try to get work as a journalist and documentary filmmaker. I ended up going to China on a trip with a friend, and unexpectedly staying for four years. It wasn't until 2008 that I first met the subject of my film, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. My roommate in Beijing, Stephanie Tung, was curating an exhibition of his photographs for a local gallery, and she invited me to make a video to accompany that show.

Those first few weeks of filming with Weiwei were enough to convince me that he was a charismatic and fascinating character and that I wanted to dig deeper into his story. He liked the video I made for his exhibition, which helped pave the way for building a trusting relationship. Since Weiwei is someone who lives his life very openly, I was lucky that once the project began, I had a lot of access. My challenge was to push deeper, to find the moments where I was the only camera in the room, where I was capturing something more personal than he normally shares online or with the press.

What I initially envisioned as a character portrait—who is Ai Weiwei, what motivates him to do what he does in art and politics—was quickly overtaken by events I could not have anticipated. Authorities shut down his popular blog and installed surveillance cameras at his home; a police assault in Chengdu sent him into emergency brain surgery on the eve of his biggest solo show ever, in Munich; his newly built studio in Shanghai was arbitrarily demolished; while he adjusted to fatherhood at home, around the world he was becoming an icon for freedom of expression and the power and possibility of social media and art.

Then, on April 3, 2011, the stakes of the project reached a new height. I was already deep into post-production, working with editor Jen Fineran in New York, when we heard Chinese authorities had made their strongest move yet: Ai Weiwei was suddenly taken into custody at the Beijing airport that morning. For 81 days he was held in an undisclosed location, interrogated daily while two guards standing at his side switched out in three-hour shifts and watched over him as he ate, slept and used the bathroom. Since I was in New York during this period, I was able to continue editing the film without any interference from authorities, and to speak out about his situation in the media. I was in regular contact with many of the staff in his studio, over Skype, email, g-chat, etc. It was a scary and dark time for everyone, and we all feared an even more prolonged detention or more serious political charge of "incitement to subversion of state power." Just as suddenly as he was detained, he was released on June 22, 2011 and returned to his home under "bail conditions" intended to restrict his speech and movement.

I was able to visit Weiwei after he was released, and I made sure to show him the film before we premiered at Sundance in January 2012. He agreed that Never Sorry is an honest portrayal of what happened over the last few years in his life. More than that, through this film audiences get an inside look at contemporary China. I feel incredibly privileged to have the chance to spend so much time with Weiwei and that he allowed me the latitude to make a documentary film entirely based on my own observations and creative choices. For me the inspiration has come over time. The editing process really helped me digest and understand my hundreds of hours of footage to see that the film was about so much more than a single artist or artwork. I think having an open attitude really helped me get to the heart of this story.

One of the greatest insights that I learned from my time with Weiwei is just how much diversity of opinion there is in China today. Weiwei is skilled at walking that fine line of political dissent in China, and he does it with humor, intellect, creativity and courage. The government has treated him harshly precisely because they fear the potency of his methods and his message. They know his artistic talent includes the art of communication, and that people will engage with the ideas he wants to discuss: rule of law, freedom of expression, transparency, justice, dignity of human life. In this way, Ai Weiwei's story is a measure of how much China has changed, but also that it has more room to grow.

In a lot of ways, though, the story of Never Sorry is really a universal one. In my opinion, the takeaway message of this film for Landmark theater audiences in the United States is not, "Thank goodness I live in the U.S. and not China," but rather something more along the lines of, "I need to be engaged, informed and active in order to safeguard the freedoms of our society." I think we are living in a moment where more than ever we need the artists and cultural vanguard to weigh in on the national conversation in creative new ways, and this will always require an initial step of individual courage on the part of those voices. Finally, the values of transparency, freedom of expression and rule of law should not be taken for granted by any citizen, whether in the U.S., China or elsewhere around the world.

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