Alison Klayman's first full-length documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry premiered in Philadelphia last weekend and begins at Bryn Mawr Film Institute today, but it never would have happened if she hadn't gone to China on a whim six years ago.
After Klayman graduated from Brown University in 2006, she thought the best way to kick off her journalism and documentary filmmaking career would be by going abroad. When a friend of hers headed to China, Klayman went, too. She learned Mandarin, worked on a Jackie Chan/Jet Li movie and worked on the Olympic website.
Meeting Ai Weiwei
In 2008, when her roommate was working on an exhibition with controversial artist and social activisit Ai Weiwei, Klayman was asked to produce a 20-minute video to go along with the exhibition.
"I was incredibly captivated by him—I was very curious," Klayman said. "I wanted to continue and work on something longer, and it ended up being this film."
When Klayman first met Ai Weiwei, who is an outspoken critic of China and is active on social media, he was still operating with a fair amount of freedom despite the risks that were there, she said.
"Initially, it was almost like a character portrait," Klayman said. "I felt he was a really engaging figure. But as the first year of filming went on, it started to be a little bit like, wow, this film is also going to have an incredibly dramatic narrative."
In the three years Klayman spent filming and editing Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Weiwei's blog was shut down, surveillance cameras were installed on his door and he was secretly detained for 81 days, among other things.
Klayman said she ran into difficulties filming mostly when they went directly to police stations or courthouses, but she added she didn't run into many problems—she was able to stay under the radar since she was not well-known and wasn't working for any big news agency.
"You have to be mindful of how you operate," said Klayman. "The main thing I was concerned about while working on this was that my actions and my presence did not create any worse situations for any of the Chinese citizens that I was with. You do have to enter this kind of project being very responsible."
At the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, the film won Special Jury prize for Spirit of Defiance. Klayman was able to show Weiwei the film before Sundance after he was released from detention, and he really liked it and didn't ask that anything be changed, she said.
Though Weiwei still has not gotten his passport back, which was confiscated when he was initially detained about 14 months ago, Klayman keeps in touch with him via text messages, Twitter and the occasional phone call.
As far as producing the movie went, it involved a mix of grant money, individual donors and crowd funding, Klayman said. An initial campaign raised about $52,000 from nearly 800 people, she added.
"The entire thing from every aspect, start to finish—the best descriptor is a learning experience," Klayman said. "I've been pleasantly surprised with how much success we've had to be able to do this on a really big scale."
Lower Merion, Philadelphia connection
Klayman is from Wynnewood, and she took piano lessons at the Nelly Berman School of Music and worked at The Point, she said. And Weiwei is familiar with Philadelphia, since it was his first stop when he studied for a semester at the University of Pennsylvania.
"I feel like there is a lot of Philly pride in this film, being a hometown kind of filmmaker, and it's my first film and is doing so well," Klayman said. "It's gotten incredible reviews so far... I wanted to show there’s support for Philly filmmakers and for independent film. It really has appealed to all kinds of different audiences."
And though Klayman is still in the thick of the release of this film, she has some new ideas as well. She hopes to be able to develop them so she can hit the ground running with exciting new challenges.
"It almost seems silly that it was so random for me, but considering what I wanted to do, I couldn’t have picked a better place," Klayman said. "I think it’s really important as an example to other people, to just take risks, take chances in pursuit of what you want to do. China was not part of my master plan, but it will be a part of my life and my work going forward."