As Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei chronicles his country’s human-rights abuses, someone else has been busy chronicling him. Alison Klayman spent two years making the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, currently screening in various locations in North America. It is the first feature-length film about his life and the winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Ai became famous for helping design Beijing’s Olympic stadium, which he later slammed as a propaganda piece. His activism dates from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, when thousands of pupils died as their shoddily built schools collapsed on them. When the government tried to sidestep the issue of poor construction, Ai collected the names of 5,385 dead children in a bid to shame the authorities. He was severely beaten for his trouble.
Klayman first visited China in 2006 as a fresh graduate from Brown University. She became an English-language coach on a Jackie Chan–Jet Li flick, reported on basketball for the official website of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, voiced cartoons and made silicone dummies for a special-effects studio. Her fateful introduction to Ai came in 2008 when she was tapped to make a video accompanying one of his Beijing exhibitions. She spoke to TIME from New York City.
How did you realize you would make a documentary about Ai Weiwei?
When he said I was. There was a time about nine months into our shooting together, I was filming with him in his home and someone stopped by and asked: “Who is that?” It was just a casual moment and I was diligently filming him. I was at a distance, but he was wearing a microphone, so I could hear everything. Weiwei says: “That’s Alison. She’s been filming me forever. She’s making a documentary.” So I was like, “Aha, confirmation!”
How did you form a connection?
When I came into that project, I didn’t have a particular agenda or strong preconceptions of who he was, so our interactions were very open. I asked some open, possibly naive questions, and he’s someone who gets a lot of media interest. But my approach was, for better or worse, very open-ended. I think that was a nice way to start a relationship.
Did he try and influence your film?
There were times when he would ask me: “When are you going to come out with this thing? What are you going to do with all this footage?” His documentaries are a different style, they come out with urgency and are about a particular case or issue. I was taking this long approach. I think he was very curious of what I was going to do, but he could see my approach was likely to yield something good. I was just a first-time filmmaker, so I think he had a lot of trust.
When Ai was detained for 81 days in 2011, what was going through your head?
That was one of the biggest challenges, and truly the darkest and scariest time of the whole project. When he was detained, I knew the stakes were raised immensely. Suddenly I was at the helm of a film about someone who was missing, and we all feared a prolonged detention or more serious political charge like “incitement to subversion of state power,” which had recently landed several high-profile activists with multiyear jail terms [including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo]. Fortunately, his release allowed us to finish the film without feeling like we were in full-out crisis mode, and we could continue to work hard to tell a delicate and complex story.
You accompanied Ai to the police station in Chengdu, when he went to file the lawsuit after his beating. That must have been a tense situation?
Ai Weiwei had his own filming of the interaction. The police had their own filming of what was occurring. Evan Osnos [former China correspondent for the New Yorker] and I were singled out for being foreign journalists, and we were asked to delete portions of our material. There had been instances when the tape was directly confiscated without discussion, they would just open my camera and take the tape out. But in that instance, I had just changed it to a fresh tape, so they confiscated a blank tape. Something I’d been taught by Ai Weiwei is to constantly be changing my tape should something like this happen. The overriding concerns whenever I was filming out in the field were that I wouldn’t get anyone else in trouble, that my presence wasn’t going to negatively impact what Ai Weiwei was doing or, God forbid, result in extra suspicion on one of the Chinese citizens I was with. The concern after that was to get the shot, and keep the tape.
PHOTOS: Ai Weiwei’s Photographs