Arts & Culture

Ai Weiwei film explores contemporary China

By
Contributing Writer
Monday, October 8, 2012

 

“There needs to be a movie about this guy,” Alison Klayman ’06 remembered thinking after she met artist Ai Weiwei for the first time. A long line of students and faculty stood outside the List Art Center Thursday night waiting to learn about the artist for themselves through a screening of Klayman’s documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.”

Both the film and the screening were unexpected successes. The documentary has received critical acclaim since premiering in January at the Sundance Film Festival. The screening, which seated a full house, was the second in a series of films sponsored by the Ivy Film Festival designed to “inspire change,” said Evan Sumortin ’13, a co-director of the festival.

The documentary provides a nuanced portrait of Ai Weiwei, a well-known Chinese artist and political activist, and of contemporary China. Klayman followed and filmed Ai while making the documentary, starting in December 2008 and ending in late 2011 after his detainment by Chinese officials. The film explores Ai’s rise to national fame during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, when he served as an artistic consultant for the design of the Beijing National Stadium, popularly known as the Bird’s Nest. It also delves into his conflicts with Chinese authorities, like those stemming from his investigation into the student casualties resulting from the Sichuan earthquake.

The film also features stories from Ai’s childhood and his studies in New York in the 1980s, and it includes interviews with contemporary artists, friends and family members.

Klayman first met Ai in 2008 while working as a journalist in China. Her roommate was curating a show featuring his artwork, and Klayman said she was asked to produce a short film to complement the art show.

Her goal for this film, which she said she began shortly after meeting Ai, was for the world to “get to know Ai Weiwei” and see a “slice of China,” Klayman told The Herald. The film should be a “reminder that China is a multifaceted, diverse place,” she said. Viewers “have to clear away whatever (their) image of China was.” 

Ai Weiwei “is a larger-than-life kind of personality,” Klayman said. “Even from the very beginning, he takes up a lot of space in the room” in more than a physical sense. But she added that despite the busy life portrayed in the film, much of Ai’s daily work was spent on Twitter. 

“He’s galvanizing … (and) inspiring people to participate,” she said. But filming Ai just working on his computer was “sometimes kind of boring.”

Klayman said she believes working in journalism helped her approach the film objectively. She added that she prefers the film to be viewed as an objective, but meaningful portrait of an important contemporary figure who represents “the universal need for courage and freedom of expression.” 

“I don’t see it as an activist film at all,” Klayman said.

The documentary was a way to go beyond short-term journalism, which Klayman said “(has) its limitations, even with the best intentions.” 

During the question and answer session following the screening, Klayman discussed Brown’s influence on her work, the stereotypes she held about China before living in the country, Ai Weiwei’s current situation and his personal reaction to the film.

After a question posed by Wenli Xu, senior fellow in international studies at the Watson Institute for International Studies and a contemporary of Ai who protested with him in 1979, Klayman discussed whether the film represents too slanted a portrayal of modern China without deference for the complexities of the government and the nation’s social structures.

Many students who attended praised the film. 

It was “an important film to make,” said Marisa Goldman, a Rhode Island School of Design student. 

Kyle Holzgruber ’15 said he was “glad to have this opportunity to learn more about the pressing issues in China,” but, considering his time spent in Beijing, added that perhaps the film did not adequately address the government’s advancements since the 1980s