A still from the film of Ai Weiwei, taken in Jingdezhen, China, in 2010. (Courtesy Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry)
A still from the film of Ai Weiwei, taken in Jingdezhen, China, in 2010. (Courtesy Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry)

Q&A: Filmmaker talks Ai Weiwei and jailed activists

Three years after a devastating earthquake hit Sichuan province in May 2008, CPJ spoke to documentary filmmaker Alison Klayman. The director is working on the upcoming “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” about the recently detained Chinese artist who documented the aftermath of the earthquake and published the names of children killed in the collapse of frail school buildings. 

Authorities restricted earthquake coverage that highlighted official neglect or corruption. Online journalist Tan Zuoren, who recorded the victims’ sufferings, was imprisoned in March 2009; police later beat Ai for trying to testify at his trial. Censorship continues today: A Southern Metropolis Daily editorial memorializing earthquake victims was censored Thursday for its oblique references to Ai, according to the Hong Kong-based China Media Project.

Police detained Ai on April 3, during a crackdown that began in February with government fears of an uprising inspired by the Arab Spring. Wen Tao, who covered Ai as a freelancer, is also missing. Klayman told CPJ about her experience documenting their work under the eyes of the ultimate documentarians–Chinese security officials:

GF: Tan Zuoren was imprisoned in 2009 for his work documenting Sichuan earthquake victims. Why did Ai feel so passionately about his case?

AK: The incredible thing about Ai and his volunteers going out to support Tan Zuoren was that almost none of them had met him. They knew that he was doing similar work, gathering children’s names and exposing negligence and corruption in school construction. When Tan’s lawyers asked Ai to testify on his behalf, Ai did not hesitate. He was motivated by empathy and solidarity, and wanted the chance to speak the truth in a Chinese court of law. “My materials will support him,” he said.

Wen Tao with Alison Klayman at the Tate in 2010 during an opening for Ai Weiwei. (Colin Jones, courtesy Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry)
Wen Tao with Alison Klayman at the Tate in 2010 during an opening for Ai Weiwei. (Colin Jones, courtesy Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry)

GF: Tell us about Wen Tao. In “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” he describes that reporting on Ai was an “opportunity,” even though it cost him his job. What kind of journalism did he do before and after he lost his position?

AK: I met Wen Tao was shortly after he lost his job at Global Times, a relatively new Chinese-English daily. He was a sports reporter in his late 30s, but in the year he worked for Global Times he started to report stories like Ai Weiwei’s earthquake campaign, which ultimately led to the loss of his job.

Ai’s Twitter conversations were an important part of his activities and Wen (@wentommy) became one of the most active members of Ai’s online community. A Chengdu native, he flew all the way there from Beijing in April 2010 for an impromptu dinner party Ai called on Twitter. It was a jovial occasion–despite the police filming all the partygoers as they ate–Ai’s first return to the restaurant he ate at the night police beat him in August 2009 [for trying to testify at Tan’s trial]. The name of the restaurant, “Lao Ma Ti Hua,” became the title of Ai’s documentary about the police encounter. Wen came as a freelance journalist to the police station the next day and live-tweeted Ai’s filing of the complaint.

I wanted to film Wen Tao’s unique story as a journalist who lost his job for covering Ai Weiwei and other issues. He was brave and principled, but spoke about it matter-of-factly, not as a starry-eyed idealist.

GF: What were your biggest concerns shooting “Never Sorry,” and how did dangers manifest themselves differently for you and your Chinese colleagues?

AK: I was very sensitive to the comfort level of my subjects, and would seek frequent confirmation that my camera and presence was welcome and wasn’t going to cause greater danger for them. Sometimes I would choose to stay back from encounters with authorities because as a foreigner I could raise more red flags. I always knew that I was not risking nearly as much as my Chinese colleagues were. My other concern was getting the best shots and protecting my tapes from getting confiscated.

GF: As a documentary filmmaker yourself, what was it like working with a community of people who are so actively recording and sharing their views?

AK: Ai and his associates were actively engaged in documenting their activities, sharing their views online and striving for transparency, within the bounds of what was safe. Their methodology was not a fixed one, they were always learning the limits and possibilities of new technologies, adapting constantly because the boundaries of the Great Firewall were too. [The Great Firewall the informal term for the government’s blocking of overseas websites.]

Their goal was mainly in record-keeping and disseminating information instantly, while mine was telling their story across cultural contexts. It was a unique aspect of my experience as a filmmaker.

GF: Where were you in the process of filming “Never Sorry” when Ai was detained on April 3? How have your goals for the film changed since?

AK: We were immersed in the editing process, nearing a rough cut to show Ai this month in New York at the opening of his “Zodiac Heads” sculptures. His detention catapulted the film into the spotlight, and forced me back into production mode in order to capture the latest events.

One of my goals for the film before Ai’s detention was to build a broader support base for him and his activities should something happen that put him in danger. I didn’t anticipate that it would happen while I was still finishing the project, so of course that has become a top priority.

GF: How would you describe the significance of “Zodiac Heads,” which opened in New York last week?

AK: Even though Ai Weiwei is in an unknown location and we cannot hear from him, his works and ideas are part of the global conversation and can be considered even in his absence. It’s a reminder that you can’t suppress an idea that has entered the public and digital spheres. You can’t put these ideas back in the bottle.

Alison Klayman is the director of upcoming documentary, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.” You can support the project at her Kickstarter page. She has published footage of Wen Tao from “Never Sorry” on The Huffington Post.