Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

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Director Alison Klayman on ‘Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry’

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Ai Weiwei: Never SorryThe first thing I did after watching Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry was to follow the subject, Ai Weiwei (@aiww), on Twitter. If you know the artist’s history, particularly as a Chinese dissident who has used social media to leverage his fame, wit, artistry and willingness to thumb his nose at the Chinese government, then you’ll appreciate where I’m coming from. Ai makes being on Twitter a virtual assertion of human rights. When you’re living under a repressive regime, it’s today’s version of dumping tea into the Boston Harbor.

Indeed, what I found most beguiling about Never Sorry is how it so effectively collapses the distance between cultures (China and USA) and people (Ai with the rest of us). Klayman’s remarkably clear-eyed film enables us to feel like we really know Ai, this son of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a highly-celebrated artist, who is one of the best known dissidents in the world today.

If you are considering going to see Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, I highly recommend you do. You’ll learn about a great artist, activist, and human being — not to mention that you’ll feel like you’re making a statement against repression.

I lobbed a few questions to Klayman, who confirmed that Ai is as attractive as he appears in her film.

Tom Roston: How did you initially get close to Ai Weiwei? How did your relationship develop?

Klayman: I went to China in 2006, driven by the desire to have adventures, learn a new language, and pursue my dream of being a journalist and documentary filmmaker. I ended up staying for four years, and in 2008 I was lucky that my roommate Stephanie Tung was curating an exhibition of his New York photographs for a gallery in Beijing. She asked if I would make a video to accompany the show, and I was basically handed the opportunity to meet him and film him. I was incredibly intrigued by his charisma, his thoughts on art and his boldness in speaking out critically of China online and in the press. I figured if I wanted to spend more time with him, an audience would too, and we would all learn a lot in the process. I suppose since he liked the short video I did for the gallery, and saw that I was taking a very open approach in my desire to document his life, he decided he would let me keep coming around.

Roston: What’s it like to be in a room with him? He seems so genial, and yet I know what it’s like to be with the “star,” whether it’s an actor, artist, politician…is he emotionally generous? Does he put people at ease?

Klayman: It’s funny you compare him to a “star,” because that’s immediately something that I did. One of my earliest jobs in China was working on the set of a Jackie Chan/Jet Li movie, assisting the lead actress who was a big celebrity in China. Spending time with so many famous actors, I immediately recognized a certain essence in being around Weiwei — he commanded the room, and he certainly had an entourage of assistants. He is incredibly emotionally generous, though, and generally likes to have a good time, try new things, and put people at ease. He can be capable of intimidating a visitor or a journalist if he chooses, but after so many years together I definitely consider his more natural state to be incredibly generous and fun-loving, appreciative of people who are genuine and open.

Roston: What criticism or comments has he given you about your film?

Klayman: We showed it to him before we locked picture and premiered at Sundance, to give him an opportunity to voice any concerns. And he did not ask to change a single thing. He was impressed by the editing, thought it was very “dense” and packed in a lot of information. Overall, he thought it was a very accurate depiction of what he’s been trying to do the last few years. He always viewed the film as my work, and I think it’s very impressive that he was able to give me so much freedom to create this independent look at him. I think what has mattered to him even more than the film itself is how it has been received around the world. I spoke with him recently and he was marveling at how this has reached so many people, created such an exciting energy as it sparks dialogue and inspires audiences. This exceeded both of our expectations and I think matters the most to him.

Roston: Ai Weiwei recently lost his appeal of the $2.4 million tax evasion charge. What’s his current emotional state?

Klayman: The day the verdict of his appeal was announced he very publicly told reporters that he was committed to continuing to file lawsuits and challenge the charge. This is what he loves to do, to exercise his rights and go through the system to reveal its flaws, even though he knows it is unlikely to produce a just outcome. He is definitely frustrated that more than a year after his release, he is still unable to travel and authorities refuse to return his passport. In general, his situation has not really improved much since his release on June 22, 2011. It remains uncertain and he is still subject to arbitrary threats to try to keep him in line.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki