Interview: Director Alison Klayman of ‘Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry’

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CHICAGO – The behemoth that is China, in both population and world dominance, has its underbelly exposed through the new documentary, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.” Written and directed by American expatriate Alison Klayman, this documentary of a famous Chinese artist named Ai Weiwei – whose dissident artistic expression woke up his fellow citizens and invited scrutiny from a angry government – is a one-of-a-kind story.

By chronicling the journey of Ai Weiwei from celebrated artist – he helped designed Beijing’s iconic Olympic stadium in 2008 – to a dissident that was “taken into custody” by the government three years later, Klayman offers a portrait of Chinese redemption and oppression that becomes a window into the real country and culture. What began as a art project for Weiwei, a memorial to fellow countrymen during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, ended up as an anti-government Internet revolution. His blog sought the names of the victims withheld by the government, and it was the people that filled in those gaps. Ai Weiwei somehow became more than a person, he was now a symbol of all the hope, fear and evolution of the new China in context with the outside world.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry’
The Artist’s Dissension in China’s Tiananmen Square from the Poster for ‘Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry’
Photo credit: Sundance Selects interviewed Alison Klaymore in April, and she offered a fascinating glimpse not only into the process of making the documentary, but of her own impressions traveling in the modern state of China. The knowledge she imparts is the power brought to the Ai Weiwei legacy. How does technology, in your opinion, help to defeat the totalitarianism of the Chinese regime? What do you think fundamentally frustrates their leadership about tech in the new China?

Alison Klayman: Fundamentally, China is very smart about technology, and they are aware that it is very difficult to control. They have a policy about the Internet, they don’t want it to be anonymous. They want to know who you are when you use your IP address, and of course they have put up what is called ‘The Great Firewall.’ They purposely censor things, they have people trolling the Internet with intent to censor.

And there is also the flip side – they use it to shape opinion. Not only are they putting things down, they have people who put things up. It’s called the ’50 Cent Army,’ because of the notion it costs only 50 cents per post. I actually think why the Internet unsettles China is because they have a good sense of the power within it.

Ai Weiwei himself recently published an editorial in Britain’s ‘The Guardian’ where he opined that China cannot defeat the Internet. I agree with that. Whatever happens in China as a result of the Internet will be contextually specific, and it’s really hard to stem the tide, because once people have an idea and the Chinese government can’t keep it down, the people will keep talking about it. How important was it for Ai Weiwei to be part of the exposé regarding the hypocrisy associated with the Sichuan earthquake victims? What does that information do for a population like China, so used to the official versions of events?

Klayman: The Sichuan earthquake stands in contrast to another in Tangshan in 1976, where hundreds of thousands and more died, so comparatively the Sichuan earthquake was much more open in acknowledging that something happened. There was a time when such things weren’t even talked about.

The Sichuan earthquake, interestingly enough, became a rallying point for Chinese nationalism. Charity became important, which isn’t a precedence in China, and a collective spirit was pushed. Governments don’t cause earthquakes, of course, but the issue became why a building erected in the 1970s was still standing, while municipal buildings completed two years ago collapsed.

For Ai Weiwei to get involved, he was moved by the devastation, he had a blog to write about it and he wanted to create an art piece as a memorial to the children who died. So when he contacted the government to get the names of the victims, they wouldn’t give them to him. Then it becomes a give and take. Would that had become a crusade of Weiwei had they just given him the names? The secret is what escalated it, made Weiwei curious, made Weiwei upset. It was the citizen’s investigation of the victims which expanded his blog. More people, even regular citizens outside the literati, thought that this had become important. Art has always been a powerful force for fighting the power. How does the force of Ai Weiwei’s art best fight the power he is up against?

Klayman: I do think it’s the fact that he uses the Internet as a communication device, a delivery tool, to make his art as participatory as possible. That comes from his feeling of the potential of the Internet, that a person can get involved. He knows that his art is engaging to those around him, and he feels that both communication and engagement is the commandment of the artist.

Ai Weiwei
Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei Talks to the Authorities in ‘Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry’
Photo credit: Sundance Selects Given the ramifications of the new wealth, new middle class and new economic freedoms in post capitalist China, what advantages does the regime hold over its people and what advantages do the people hold over them?

Klayman: It’s tough to really analyze China, because even the most seasoned Chinese journalist is often in the dark. The leadership practices the opposite of transparency. There was a story a few months ago about a high official who was ousted by the government, and his wife involved in the murder of a British man. To get any details about this actually evolved to a rumor on the Chinese version of Twitter, that there was a coup taking place one night in Beijing. My favorite analysis of that event was that there was an admission of these rumors of a coup, but they could not confirm or deny it. Something huge may happen then or now, but there is a feeling that the government does not have to disclose anything to anyone.

The people has vast numbers, and there really isn’t a rule by consent. But there is a fear of going back to a more tumultuous time, and really that keeps both sides in check. That can make the average person think it all could be worse, and I’d rather have this than anarchy. By the same token the government realizes that the vast population could splinter, and anti-corruption does come out of that. What was your path to this film? What spurred you to be a filmmaker and how did you find this subject?

Klayman: I went to China in 2006, after getting a history degree from Brown University. I had no background in China at all, neither language or history. The main impetus was going abroad to study a language, because I liked studying languages, and also to be a freelance journalist who would eventually make documentaries. I lucked out in going to China, a friend of mine had family there, and she was going for a few months. I volunteered to go with her, and what was suppose to be a five month trip resulted in her going back to the states, and me staying. I traveled a lot, worked many jobs – my goal was to learn the language without going to school – and had great experiences simply talking to people. After two years, I felt competent enough in the language to start the film.

In 2008, my Chinese-American roommate was curating Ai Weiwei’s New York City photographs, the thousands of pictures from the decade he lived there. That was my entry point, that’s how I think about those photos. My roommate then asked me to do a video for the gallery. I met Weiwei, and we just got along during that process. The earthquake project came up, and that’s when I had the feeling that he and I could do more. I felt if there was a movie about Ai Weiwei, that people would think about China differently than they had before. That was my first thought, I couldn’t imagine what would happen the next couple of years. There are generations in China that experienced the establishment of Communist rule in 1949, ‘The Great Leap Forward,’ the cultural revolution, Tiananmen, the infiltration of capitalism, expansive middle class growth and massive physical materialism. In your observations, what intrigues you about how those generations mix and how is it reflected in Ai Weiwei’s art?

Klayman: Weiwei was born in 1957. His biography follows the contours of the history of China, what you just read out. As the child of the writings of ‘I Ching,’ and with his father as well, it brings you from the beginnings of the People’s Republic of China all the way to now. When I met people in China who were born before the mid-1970s, I would think, ‘you’ve been through everything.’ Weiwei’s father is a great example of how nobody emerged from that period unscathed. He was the modern poet of China, but he still had 18 years of exile and persecution. Nobody was able to be up the whole time or down the whole time. What is your theory on what the government did to Weiwei while he was in custody? What techniques do you imagine an angry totalitarian government have at their disposal?

Alison Klayman
Director Alison Klayman in Chicago, April 20th, 2012
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

Klayman: While he was detained, he was a prisoner of a high order. He wasn’t kept in a jail, but in a hotel-like existence, so he was fed well and was medically attended to, which shows that they didn’t want anything physical to occur. It was psychological torture that I believe affected him. When I saw him after he was released in September of 2011, he was entirely preoccupied by that incarceration. He talked about it all the time, but he couldn’t talk about it on the record. For him, that time was difficult and formative. It was the harshest blow that the government could inflict, it was a paradigm shift. There is pre-detention and post-detention, and it’s all a giant question mark, because there is no idea what will happen next. Would it just be easier for him to escape or in essence defect?

Klayman: He has traveled extensively, and is sort of a citizen of the world, but it feels like he want to remain a Chinese citizen as well, and be there. In interviewing his peers, the consensus was we can’t ask him to give up his entire life for the cause, it would be selfish. He can’t live his life for the rest of us. I don’t think he wants to leave permanently. What will the West never understand about China, and what will China never understand about radicals like Weiwei?

Klayman: I can answer the second part better. It’s hard to know what the Chinese establishment really thinks of Weiwei, because we never get an indication from them. We don’t know if his treatment was based on different opinions about him within the establishment. It’s unclear.

But what is really important is that every society needs a person like Weiwei, the people who stand up and remind us of important values. I don’t think he even talks about government overthrow or even a course of political reform. In the end, his standard may even be too high to implement now. But we need him to pull us into the right direction, to make us think and reflect on what’s going on. There is a long history in Chinese culture of criticism by artists and intellectuals, and the country needs to consider that important – that it’s not a destabilizing factor, but a positive for everyone.

“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” continues its limited release in Chicago on August 3rd. See local listings for theaters and showtimes. Featuring interviews with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Written and directed by Alison Klayman. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2012 Patrick McDonald,

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