It was nighttime. News crews were filming renowned Beijing-based artist and activist Ai Weiwei as he returned home in June, 2011, after 81 days of confinement by Chinese authorities.
The footage, included in the new documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry by filmmaker Alison Klayman, shows Ai acting completely unlike himself. Normally eloquent and ready to speak his mind, he wouldn’t say anything to the reporters, except that he was on bail. “Live your life. Everybody just live your life,” was all he added.
Nominally, Ai was more or less held on charges of tax evasion. His supporters around the world see it as intimidation. But what did Klayman see as the main cause for Ai’s uncharacteristic silence, having spent so much time with him?
“When I visited him in September after his release, he literally called them [the authorities] every time he left the house. Because he is able to travel within Beijing, he can go to a restaurant or leave his house. But he calls them every time,” Klayman says. “That never was his life before. And part of that is have a psychological reminder to him [by authorities]. It’s like ‘We own you.’ ”
Ai has gradually resumed testing what he can and can’t get away with. He is still able to talk to foreign journalists, although his actions are closely monitored. His bail was lifted in June, one year after his arrest, but he is not free. Government handlers knock on his door and caution him regularly, Klayman says.
“Even since those [bail] conditions were lifted on June 22, they said, we are not giving you your passport back. You’re still under investigation for various charges including pornography and bigamy. It’s just the notion that [Ai is] under investigation for lots of things and anything could come down on [him] at any time.”
In her opinion, Ai still shocks with what he says. He still condemns the Chinese legal system – words which can easy cause deep trouble in China. On July 20, he lost an appeal of his tax-evasion case, although his legal team has vowed to keep fighting. Ai denounced the ruling, although Klayman says the artist now seems a lot more cautious and nuanced.
“He was such a master of walking the line. And right now, there’s a lot more hanging over him. He’s not sure where the line is,” she adds.
Klayman, who is 27, met and got to know the artist by chance. Having finished her undergraduate degree at Brown University, she moved to China in 2006. Two years later, her roommate was helping to put together a show of photographs Ai took during a decade in New York, primarily in the 1980s. The exhibit has received widespread attention and toured internationally, but it was put together in China relatively quietly, Klayman says.
By this time in 2008, Klayman had gotten her press credientials and was thinking of reporting from China, when she was invited to shoot a video about the exhibit. That led to her acceptance by Ai, and she stayed to make her own, longer documentary.
“There were so many things that we were covering in our conversations, about his earthquake compaign [and] about censorship on his blog that just didn’t fit into the New York photographs video. But I really wanted to find a way to use it and to explore that more.”
Ai is used to having camera crews and journalists around. He has made a number of documentaries himself with his own hired crew. Klayman, however, wasn’t working for Ai, and made the film independently. As a result, she wasn’t always told of the artist’s plans and had to keep her ear close to the ground. She wound up filming even candid moments with Ai and his young son, moments which the artist initially wanted to keep private.
“I didn’t see him change when the camera was on or off,” Klayman notes. “At the same time, he is really, really savvy. It’s not like he’s naive. He is using media very, very effectively, and he knows when he is on the record or being interviewed for a major publication ... But I really wouldn’t describe it as controlling or even self-conscious.”
Yet rather than the foreign audiences who will see Klayman’s documentary, she feels Ai really wants to speak more to fellow Chinese.
“The audience he is very clearly chasing is the domestic audience. All his activities, his years of blogging and now his years of tweeting, they are exclusively in Chinese. They are only in English if you retweet something in English. But this is years devoted to facilitating conversation and putting out his views, all in Chinese.
“So I think that it is really clear who his desired audience is, and that’s exactly the audience that the government has been very actively and intentionally trying to keep him from,” Klayman says.