Alison Klayman's documentary looks at both the personal and public side of Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei.
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7 Aug 2012 - 2:59 PM  UPDATED 7 Aug 2012 - 2:59 PM

American filmmaker Alison Klayman's film, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a fascinating insight into the life of China's provocative political artist Ai Weiwei.

He is often very spontaneous and you can’t predict if he’s going to do something, like a funny photo shoot or go to the police

Klayman describes her first meeting with the artist as “an opportunity that was gift wrapped”. Living in China after graduating from university, Klayman shared a house with the curator of an Ai Weiwei photographic exhibit, and was offered the chance to make a video to accompany the show. "The first day I met him I was already there to film him,” she says.

Klayman became familiar with Ai's public persona, including his contribution to the design of the 2008 Olympic National Stadium (aka the 'Bird's Nest') and his subsequent activism against the Beijing Games and the ruling party, but she says she was drawn to his personality and activitism. “There was a lot that was complex,” she says. “Here was a Chinese citizen openly creating and criticising China.”

Klayman decided that Ai would become the lens through which to explore the multiplicity of contemporary Chinese experience. Ai allowed Klayman access to his political and artistic activities as well as his private world. If he had any trepidation about consenting to the project, he didn't let it show.

“He was probably nervous as it progressed, but the truth is that he's such a transparency advocate. He uses the tools of documentary and social media so readily everyday. The risk wasn't that I was going to expose something that wasn't already out there. It's just that, ultimately, it takes a lot of trust and ability to let go.”

Klayman found herself following Ai's Twitter account to determine where he would be at any given time. “He is often very spontaneous and you can't predict if he's going to do something, like a funny photo shoot or go to the police. I felt that I really had to follow him closely on Twitter and talk to people running his schedule at the studio in order to anticipate when something important was going to happen. Sometimes Twitter was more of a tease because I'd see something as it was happening but couldn't get there in time. There are all kinds of things I missed.”

Klayman's film combines her own material, archival footage of Ai's art and footage supplied by the artist himself. It's the latter that helps weave a powerful narrative of brutality, when police arrive at his hotel and violently strike him. It was an act that he initially disseminated on social media and later attempted to bring to light through the judicial system. As the activities progressed, Klayman filmed alongside the artist's own cameras, other citizen bloggers and underground filmmakers.

“It was precisely when we travelled to where he had experienced assault by police, and continued to file complaints and lawsuits and requests for investigations, that it was the most tense,” Klayman remembers. “I think it was tense for everyone. You know you are going to the police with a whole bunch of cameras but you don't know how the day is going to turn out. Ultimately, my biggest concern was the safety of the Chinese citizens I was with – Ai Weiwei included.”

In April 2011, Ai was detained in a secret location for 81 days. He was released in June and accused of tax evasion. He was later found guilty. “The hands down scariest time was when I was in New York finishing the film and Weiwei was detained,” Klayman admits. “There was so much uncertainty. It was unprecedented to have him taken away in that fashion and kept out of contact. It was a sensitive period for everyone involved. I filmed and gathered footage of protests and other online actions and artwork in support of Ai Weiwei. Once he was released I was able to go back. It was so important to be able to spend time with him in person.”

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry screens this month as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.