First-time filmmaker Alison Klayman '06, director of "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry," cited two experiences that prepared her for the challenges of making an award-winning documentary about influential Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei.
The first was living on an organic farm, where participants work in exchange for food and shelter. This experience taught her to "do whatever is required." And when filming Ai Weiwei, a big man with big ideas and plans, "nothing," she said, "was happening at my convenience."
The second experience came during an earlier job in China, when Klayman was the personal assistant of famous Chinese actress Liu Yifei. Klayman worked for her during a six-month long movie shoot and became accustomed to being entirely at the mercy of someone else's schedule - a skill she said was necessary during the three years she followed Ai as he negotiated art exhibits, family visits and altercations with the police.
'A moving target'
Jen Fineran, the editor of the film, wrote in an email to The Herald that "telling his story was like chasing a moving target."
Though Ai was "gracious and open about the access he gave me," Klayman said, he was also spontaneous and impulsive. She would "try to anticipate" what his next move might be, but some events were unforeseeable to either of them, she said. After Klayman returned to New York to edit the footage, Ai, whose use of social media blurs the line between art and activism, disappeared. He was detained by the Chinese government for 81 days.
Klayman said the most concerned she had been during her involvement with Ai was not during an altercation with the Chinese police, but when she was home in New York and learned of Ai's imprisonment.
When they learned of Ai's disappearance, Fineran was in the middle of editing a video of Ai's comments on Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient jailed by the Chinese government. In the video, Ai said the Nobel Prize is a "great reward" for government critics who suffer for their activism.
Klayman "preferred to be on the other side of the camera," but Ai's disappearance, in light of her recent documentary footage, brought her into the limelight more quickly than she had hoped. She capitalized on the media attention to raise awareness about what was happening to Ai.
Exposing the system
The film blends in-depth chronicles of Ai's social media usage and activism, including a mission he went on to collect the names of all the students who had died during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, snapshots of encounters with the authorities - including an assault that required him to undergo brain surgery - perspectives of art pundits and snippets of his personal life.
Fineran said the approach was a "low-key, intimate and in-the-moment observation" that spanned three years. The driving story arc is his Sichuan earthquake involvement. In response to his activism, government officials beat him. In the film, he embarks on a mission to expose what he calls the illegitimacy of the Chinese system by playing exactly by its rules in seeking justice - which he never obtains.
With a documentary about current events, it is hard to know how to conclude the film, Klayman said, because the story will keep changing. After learning of his imprisonment during post-production, Klayman returned to China to film more of his story. The film ends with his release.
Klayman said there have not yet been political repercussions from the film. She said she does not see "Never Sorry" as "an anti-China film," but rather thinks it has been "overwhelmingly viewed as an important film for Chinese people."
She attributes much of the success of the film to the rise of China and international "hopes and fears" for China's future. This film might not have drawn so much interest or been as potent before events such as the Arab Spring and Wikileaks brought issues such as government censorship and oppression into the public consciousness, she said.
The leading character also helped bring the film success. His arrest launched him into the public eye - so much so that he was a runner-up for Time Magazine's Person of the Year in 2011. ArtReview Magazine named Ai the most powerful figure in the art world.
A portrait of a hero
Klayman, Fineran and Adam Schlesinger, the producer, all said the compelling nature of the documentary's protagonist was what inspired them to be involved in the project. Klayman, who had moved to China, started filming Ai as part of an exhibit her roommate was curating. Always trailing him with a camera made it easy for the short video to develop into something more ambitious, she said.
Schlesinger said once he heard about the project, it was "sort of a no-brainer." He appreciated Klayman's "collaborative" approach, which he said is not always the case for first-time filmmakers. Both he and Fineran marveled at the access Ai granted Klayman. Klayman portrayed him as a "hero figure and very human, with his faults," Schlesinger said, which he cited as a driving force behind the film's success.
Klayman has received accolades for her first film. "Never Sorry" won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and has a 97 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a site that aggregates critics' reviews. Klayman said she hopes to approach her future in filmmaking through themes of freedom of expression and
transparency with strong characters.
Though Klayman chalks her involvement with Ai up to serendipity, Fineran wrote in an email to The Herald that such a tale does not give the newcomer enough credit.
"I think she prepared for that opportunity, and she put herself in the right place at the right time," Fineran wrote. "Other filmmakers - first time or experienced - could have easily dropped the proverbial ball, but she didn't."