x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Ai Weiwei's struggle documented in must-see film

Alison Klayman's documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is one of the most important non-fiction films of the past year.

A scene from the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which focuses on the Chinese artist's radical activism. Courtesy ADFF
A scene from the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which focuses on the Chinese artist's radical activism. Courtesy ADFF

When Alison Klayman headed to Shanghai in 2006 to stay with a friend and her family, having just graduated with a degree in history from Brown University, her ambitions were vague at best. "I just wanted to go to a country where I would learn a new language and become a freelance journalist and maybe make a documentary," she says. She's done more than just that. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is one of the most important non-fiction films of the past year.

For her portrait of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, the man who helped design the famous Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing, Klayman came at him from another angle. "I wasn't an art world insider in any way. It was more the historical and political that drew me in," she says. In particular, she was attracted to her subject's radical activism - be it through his artworks or his comments on Twitter - which has made him a constant thorn in the side of the Chinese government.

"At that point, if people used the word 'dissident' to describe him, it felt premature," she says. "That always felt like people were trying to put him into a category. I think now it's probably a more apt term."

Initially introduced to Ai after her roommate was asked to curate his photographs from his early days in New York, Klayman began by video-documenting this process before her own personal portrait of the activist-artist began to evolve.

Last year, Klayman was editing her footage, fully intending her ending to be the artist's career-high Sunflower Seeds exhibition at London's Tate Modern. But then the Chinese government gave her a new conclusion: Ai was detained for almost three months with no contact with the outside world. "I don't think they wanted to harm him physically because of his high profile," she says. "But I think he underwent psychological torture for sure."

Consider the shocking images of Ai leaving detention, when he emerged unable to speak to the media for fear of being incarcerated again. "To me that footage is incredible," says Klayman. "It shows you how changed he was." But having begun using Twitter again, Ai even published an essay in Newsweek - Beijing Is a Nightmare City. "I feel like he's playing with what the [rules] are," says Klayman. But is he safe from further reprisals? She looks concerned. "I don't know what the future holds for him."

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry screens tonight at 8.45pm and on Saturday at 1.15pm. Visit www.adff.ae for more information.