Chinese artist proves provocative subject for Jewish filmmaker

Ai Weiwei in a scene from Alison Klayman’s ‘Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.’ Photo Courtesy of Never Sorry LLC

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Young Jewish-American director/writer/journalist Alison Klayman scores a powerful hit with her first feature documentary, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” about China’s most famous outspoken contemporary artist.

Ai Weiwei has been hailed by ArtReview as the world’s most powerful artist. After gaining international prominence in 2008 as one of the designers of the Birds Nest stadium for the Beijing Summer Olympics, the artist irked Chinese authorities by calling the Olympics “party propaganda.” The artist has continued to speak out against Chinese government censorship and repression, often through social media and through his art. In 2011, Ai Weiwei vanished for three months but was later released by Chinese authorities, although he remains under restrictions.

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The film won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and also played the True/False documentary film festival in Columbia, Mo. earlier this year.

Klayman’s film focuses on the personal, professional and political sides of the artist. Ai Weiwei’s art works span conceptual art, photography and sculpture, and his commentary ranges from the philosophical to the social and political. His art is often marked by a mixture of defiance and humor, like a photograph of the artist’s extended middle finger in the foreground of a view of China’s iconic Tiananmen Square. In the film, Ai responds to the Chinese authorities’ decision to demolish his newly built studio by hosting a “demolition party” and posting photos online.

Klayman’s powerful, polished film captures the artist’s charismatic personality and creative resourcefulness in the face of government repression. The film opens with the contemporary artist commenting on one of his many pet cats’ talent for opening doors, saying that the difference between man opening a door and a cat opening one is that the cat never closes it behind him.

Following the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Ai created an art exhibit called “Never Sorry,” a play on the government’s official statement of “so sorry” to victims’ families. Ai’s art centered on his efforts to uncover the true death toll following the disaster, when the Chinese government tried to cover-up the role shoddy construction of schools played in the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren.

Klayman was working as a freelance journalist in China when she first met Ai Weiwei. “It wasn’t until 2008 that Ai Weiwei’s story really came to my attention. My roommate was curating an exhibition of his photographs for a local gallery and she asked if I wanted to make a video to accompany the show,” Klayman said, in a recent phone interview with the Jewish Light.

The artist’s social/political activism and big following on social media meant he was already well-known to local journalists as “the most reliable major cultural figure, who would actually give you critical quotes.” When she suggested this longer film, the artist then gave her remarkable access.

Ai is an internationally famous artist who lives in comfort in an enormous studio, where he and his assistants create a variety of sculptural and conceptual art. Klayman is unobtrusive as a filmmaker, letting the artist and his close associates speak directly to the camera and following the artist as he created art or engaged in political acts and in his personal life.

The film is remarkably intimate and skillfully made. The artist or those close to him often begin speaking at first on camera, but then their narration continues over images of the artist at work or engaged in acts of social protest. And there is some tense moments, as the camera follows Ai when he confronts police or other authorities.

Some reviews of the film have criticized Ai Weiwei, suggesting he is using his activism as self-promotion, although his passion certainly seems genuine in the film. Klayman’s neutral journalistic tone allows viewers to draw their own conclusions. The artist spent many years in New York as a young man, which may partially explain an outspokenness that is uncharacteristic of other Chinese artists or its society generally.

Although Kalyman does not insert herself in her film, she is an interesting character in her own right. “My life plan upon graduation (from Brown University) was that I was going to go abroad, I was going to learn a new language, become a journalist and make a documentary film. So I went (to China) in 2006 and ended up staying for several years,” she said.

Besides her native English, Klayman speaks Mandarin and Hebrew. Her mother was born in Israel but moved to the United States as a child. Klayman grew up in Philadelphia in a kosher, observant household and attended Jewish day school.

Klayman says her film is a reflection of Jewish values.

“I see the act of questioning as a Jewish value, and the idea of bearing witness and shining a light on dark parts of society/history was something I feel was ingrained in me from lessons of the Holocaust and other episodes in Jewish history,” she said. “I also believe that tikkun olam applies to the whole world, including China.”

Klayman notes that there were tense moments in the film where Ai confronts authorities, moments that could have been risky for the filmmakers as well. But she said she had less fear for herself than for the Chinese citizens in the film, including Ai Weiwei.

“It was the kind of thing where you knew the risk was always there. But to be around Ai Weiwei is not to live in fear, so I think also maybe that rubs off a little bit as well, it kind of emboldens you,” she said.

In an article Klayman wrote for the Jewish Daily Forward earlier this month, she explored some of the ways her film reflects Jewish values. In that article, she talks about her grandparents, who are Shoah survivors.

“My whole life before college I studied at Jewish day schools, where I was taught that Judaism’s intellectual heritage values questioning and dissent,” she writes. “The importance of taking personal responsibility was underscored through the words of scholars and rabbis even before Hillel’s famous question asking if we are not for ourselves, who are we? History lessons on World War II (and an early obsession with young adult Holocaust literature) reinforced the lesson that silence in the face of injustice is complicity.”

Klayman described Ai Weiwei as “the Chinese version of the quintessential Jewish outsider.” Indeed, the documentary she made, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is a compelling look at a remarkable world figure.