Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei?

Documenting the Story of Ai Weiwei

...behind the scenes with filmmaker Alison Klayman

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Alison Klayman

Alison Klayman is the director of the upcoming documentary, "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry." Based in China since 2006, she is the Beijing correspondent for Global Radio News and her stories have also appeared on NPR, AP Television, Voice of America and the CBC. (Follow her film's progress on Facebook and Twitter.)

After two years and over 200 hours of footage, I know the world of Ai Weiwei. My project will eventually become a feature film, but it all started just after the Beijing Olympics, two years into my stay in China.  My friend Stephanie Tung invited me to make a short film about an art show she was curating: 10,000 photographs taken by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei while he was living in New York City in the 1980s.

Klayman and Ai Weiwei

So I began filming Ai Weiwei in December 2008 and quickly got to know him through the stories he recounted about living in New York as a youth -- something I could relate to as a young American who's also now living in a foreign country. We talked about the evolution of his political consciousness, from his childhood in domestic exile with his father (renowned poet Ai Qing) to his decision to return to China in 1993 and remain a Beijing resident and Chinese citizen.

“Sometimes China can feel like the Wild West, where you can show up at a police station with cameras rolling and get away with it for an hour. Until they stop you.”

That week we first met, writer and activist Liu Xiaobo had been arrested for circulating the Charter 08 online. (He was sentenced to 11 years in prison, on the charge of "suspicion of inciting subversion of state power." In 2010, still in jail, Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.) And that was the first time I asked Weiwei a question that I would repeatedly ask him over the months that followed: "How is it you can openly speak your mind without serious consequences?"

Soon after, Weiwei invited me to participate as a cameraperson in his "Citizens' Investigation." He wanted to find out the names of the more than 5,000 students who died in the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, although he recognized there would be some setbacks in having a non-Chinese volunteer. It was then I realized that my place would be better served in documenting his story, rather than just the earthquake project.

Internet cat-and-mouse games

Weiwei's popular blog, launched in 2005, was shut down around the one-year anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake. So he turned to Twitter and became even more of an Internet addict.

The blog had been hosted on Sina.com, a site within China's firewall and therefore under the government's control. During his four years blogging in Chinese, Weiwei would often find government censors had removed a post. His response was to simply re-post it again. When Weiwei first lost his blog, he turned to a micro-blogging site, also hosted within the firewall (think of it as a Chinese version of Twitter); when his posts grew too controversial, authorities simply shut off his account. His followers tried to mislead authorities, creating multiple user names like "WeiweiAi" or "Weiweiwei" to mask which account was the real Ai Weiwei.

Eventually, he moved his social media activities out of the firewall entirely to Twitter (with the handle @aiww). While the site is "blocked" in China, it can be accessed through a VPN, which logs your local computer onto the Internet through a remote server in another country. This is called "jumping over the firewall" (翻墙). Once you take this step to access the Internet through a server outside of China, you bypass the government's restrictions.

When Weiwei wanted to release his own documentaries to followers in China -- films about the parents of Sichuan's earthquake victims, or his beating by local police in Sichuan's capital -- he knew he'd have to be one step ahead of censors. So he developed a functional, but complicated, system to distribute his films online. Each video is available for download as an innocuously labeled file on a Chinese file-sharing site (similar to Yousendit or Rapidshare). He then compiles these and pastes the links into a Google document. Finally, he tweets the Google document's link to his followers. He updates them every few days depending on whether the links are blocked or Internet censors remove the files.

Celebrity, East and West

Over the two years I spent with Weiwei, I witnessed his rising celebrity. Every day a small parade of foreign journalists, or local reporters from fashion and culture magazines, or curators and camera crews visited his home, seeking his opinion on China's future as if he was an oracle.

When I went to his solo show "So Sorry" in Munich, which opened in October 2009, it was the first time I appreciated the reach of his stardom in the West. In China, I was used to finding Weiwei in the small orbit of his home and nearby studio spaces, without really observing strangers having a chance to react to him, except the reporters (and people online, of course). But in Germany, his police beating and subsequent surgery was top news, and large crowds came to see his art show.

His fame in Germany was due to two events: his collaboration with Swiss architects Herzog and DeMeuron to design the "Bird's Nest" Beijing Olympics stadium, and his high-profile 2007 project for Documenta 12, a prestigious art exhibit held every five years in Kassel, Germany. For that project -- "Fairytale" -- he brought 1001 Chinese to Kassel to live at Documenta during its run. They were a cross-section of rural and urban, young and old, all responding to an open online application process. "Fairytale" is in many ways the predecessor to the Sichuan "Citizens' Investigation," and it was the first time Weiwei put an idea on his blog and saw the enormous impact of the Internet.

Ai Weiwei -- a bellwether

Ai Weiwei's interplay with authorities can be seen as a bellwether of how much China has changed, and how far it has to go, in terms of freedom of expression. No scene captures this better than the day he visited the Jinniu district police station in Chengdu on April 6, 2010. The complaint he filed about his injury at the hands of the police was ultimately rejected; the police denied they hit him. At the same time, they respectfully listened and recorded his testimony with two witnesses present. They also allowed him to walk into the station with several cameras to document the event, something rather unimaginable, even in the United States.

But that isn't the full story. About 40 minutes after we arrived at the station, officials appeared who spoke English and asked me and New Yorker correspondent Evan Osnos to step into another room. They checked our documents and told us that we would have to erase our footage since we didn't have permission to film the police. My footage survived because I secretly switched my HDV tape with a blank one. They filmed the camera screen as I turned on the color bars and "deleted" the footage, satisfied to have proof they had carried out their orders.

The January 2011 demolition of Weiwei's Shanghai studio (read The New York Times article) is another example of the fine line he's walking and the uncertain future.

A local mayor in the Jiading district on Shanghai's outskirts pressured Weiwei to build a studio in the area to attract other artists. Weiwei spent more than $1 million on the new studio; it was even larger than his home studio in Beijing. But after the two-year project was done, he heard from Shanghai authorities that the studio would be demolished because he didn't file all the proper permits. Weiwei told foreign reporters that he suspected it had something to do with documentary projects he had filmed about dissidents in Shanghai. The local mayor apologized profusely to Weiwei and compensated him for more than the amount of money he had spent.

Why isn't he in jail?

After spending the last two years following Weiwei, I still don't know exactly the answer to that question. Events over those two years show that Weiwei is certainly not immune to government persecution. When I first started filming, his blog was still running, with minor government interference; he'd never been put under house arrest or injured by police; none of his buildings had ever been demolished; and he was never barred from leaving the country.

I guess my answer to the question is perhaps succinctly summarized by magazine publisher and popular Chinese-language blogger Hung Huang. She told me, "China isn't China until it's China." She explained that the relative freedom of daily life, and people's recent ability to acquire the commodities and luxuries they want and to live without government interference, doesn't prepare you for that moment when the authorities do descend.

Sometimes China can feel like the Wild West, the kind of place where you can show up at a police station with cameras rolling and get away with it for an hour. Until they stop you. This means, essentially, that Weiwei is not in jail until he is in jail. I hope that this story, and my film, can help raise awareness for Ai Weiwei in case that day ever comes.

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Posted March 29, 2011

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