Who'll Blink First?: Filming Ai Weiwei
In 2010 Ai Weiwei invited the people of Chengdu, a teeming megacity with a population of 14 million, to join him for dinner. Using his popular Twitter account the artist let it be known that he would be sampling the local delicacy of pigs' trotters at a streetside restaurant, and anyone who wished to join him was welcome.
Ostensibly he was in the city, the capital of Sichuan province, on business, but his visit was also an act of defiance. For it was in Chengdu that, the previous year, Ai had been detained and beaten by local police in reponse to his activism surrounding the aftermath of the devastating Sichuan earthquake of 2008. Incensed by official reluctance to reveal the human cost of this natural disaster which had resulted in 70,000 deaths, including many children crushed when shoddily-built government schools had collapsed, Ai had initiated an internet campaign to expose the true extent of the tragedy. By returning to the city the artist was making a very public declaration that he was not cowed.
That evening Ai sat at a long table set up on the pavement and ate with the obvious relish of a man who enjoys his food. Throughout the meal a stream of people stopped to talk. Some were 'Ai fans' (as one woman described herself), others were simply curious to meet a figure who had become, through his activism and his prolific use of social media, one of the most visible people in China today. The rotund, bearded Ai became the eye of a storm of snapping cameraphones. At the edge of the circle of illumination thrown by the restaurant's harsh fluorescent lights stood another figure with a video camera. This was no art enthusiast; it was a policeman recording the faces of all who were present.
Also at the meal, along with a handful of other journalists, was the young American film-maker Alison Klayman. In her documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which is released on DVD on 8 October, she trains her camera on the videoing policeman, who responds by pointing his camera back at hers. They engage in a digital staring contest, as if daring the other to blink first.
On the phone to Klayman, who is back in the USA to promote the release of her film, I asked her what she felt her role as a documentary maker was in the the media-saturated environment Ai has constructed around him. How did she hope to compete with his own obsessive recording of his life, for the artist is rarely seen without his small digital camera in his hand and an assistant standing by with a video camera? She replied that she felt:
"My role was unique from everyone else's. He was documenting himself, whether through employees or himself. He told them when to turn it on and when to turn it off. He never really did that to me."
As for the hundreds of interviews he gave to journalists, a number of which feature in her film, she didn't feel that she was competing with these either:
"I felt that they were coming into my movie. That was a really important part of who he was."
Building a picture of "who he was", however, was never going to be an easy task. In Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry we watch Ai run circles around a reporter trying to get him to talk about the young son that he has by a woman who is not his wife. Ai is simultaneously absolutely straightforward – admitting the facts when they are put to him – and completely opaque, giving no hint as to the emotional reality of the situation. For a man who has turned his life into a public artwork through his obsessive blogging and tweeting, he can be an impassive, unforthcoming figure who exerts great control over what he allows people to know about him.
When Klayman first began filming Ai in 2008 she knew that she would be dealing with a formidable character, "a big personality who could be intimidating." She had arrived in China two years before, fresh out of college, drawn by the desire to "have adventures" and by the opportunities that the country might offer to kickstart her career in journalism. For two years she worked on her Mandarin Chinese and took whatever jobs were available – including working on a Jackie Chan movie – before receiving her journalist's accreditation. Almost immediately a subject fell into her lap. A friend was curating an exhibition presenting a selection of the more than 10,000 photographs Ai had taken while he lived in New York from 1981 to 1993, and suggested that Klayman make a short film to accompany the show. In this way Klayman met the artist "completely within the context of filming." After the project was completed, she continued to film him for the next two years.
Aware that she was working with a compulsive self-documenter and an expert manipulator of the media, Klayman looked "for the moments both that he would want to document and those that he wasn't trying to document... a quiet moment of reflection... when his Mum comes to visit. I wasn't competing in those moments. I was definitely the only one." In this way she hoped to build a character portrait of the enigmatic artist, and to capture details missed by other journalists working to a deadline.
And her fly-on-the-wall filming does offer illuminating glimpses of her sometimes prickly subject. Some are simple, everyday moments; on a visit to New York Ai reveals a love of pastrami sandwiches, a legacy of his decade in the city, while a quiet scene with his young son in a London hotel room serves as a contrast to the epic scale of Sunflower Seeds, the work he was at that time installing in the vast Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. But Klayman is careful to keep her portrait open-ended, and not to fall into easy explanations. At the heart of the film is a brief exchange between Ai and his mother which, Klayman tells me, has divided audiences, some feeling that it reveals him as unsympathetic towards her, others that it shows he is trying to protect her.
These contradictory readings delight Klayman, for she is at pains to emphasise that Ai is "a man of many paradoxes"; her film reveals a man who is both impulsive and reticent, possessed of great courtesy but also scabrous wit, given to anarchic caprices yet passionate about social justice. And if Ai's puckish, sometimes clown-like persona has led him to become something of a poster boy for dissdience in the West, Klayman's film makes it clear that this picture of him as a cuddly, playful figure raising a finger (often literally) to the system in the name of freedom is far from complete. One of her interviewees in the film describes China's security officials as "hooligans," but then adds that Ai has his own hooligan side. In a New Yorker profile Ai himself acknowledged the often complex relationship between the dissident and the state: "Being threatened is addictive. When those in power are infatuated with you, you feel valued."
But most of all during my conversation with her, Klayman seems determined that I understand the personal cost of Ai's defiance. Battling with the state has been a grinding ordeal for him, terrifying in its uncertainty and seemingly without end. So, when I say that I found the film's conclusion – which sees Ai emerge from 81 days of detention and unable to speak to the press – profoundly sad, her response surprises me. After agreeing that in many ways it does feel like a defeat, she is suddenly enthusiastic: "This was more of an ending than I'd ever imagined." Worried about how she would draw her filming to a close, the decision by the authorities to bring years of brinkmanship to a head had given her the conclusion that she needed: "This was what everything in this part of his life had led up to."
If her response initially struck me as almost callous, I quickly realised that it revealed the touch of steel that any film-maker requires to complete a project. If it was Klayman's ability to melt into the corner of a scene with her camera that gave her the raw material for her film, it was her stubborn determination that had allowed her not only to stare down a policeman with a video camera, but also to maintain her independence while working with such a formidable, controlling personality, and to create her sympathetic portrait of a complex man.