No apologies for Ai Weiwei

Aug 01, 2013, 10:23 IST | Kanika Sharma

Catch this Special Jury Prize winner, 2012 at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival � a revelatory documentary on the Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei, today at Alliance Francaise in association with The Root Reel as Kanika Sharma engages in a tete-a-tete with the director, Alison Klayman

Tell us about the title of the film and the experience of filming the world’s most famous artist?
It’s actually a riff on Ai Weiwei’s exhibition, So Sorry, that was exhibited in Munich in January 2010. He intended it because every time you ask any of the authorities for an explanation at different times, there are different platitudes that they use. Usually beginning with “We are so sorry but….” So this a subversive take on the whole thing.

Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei working on his sunflower seeds installation

Ai Weiwei always tries to figure out different ways to express himself. I often found myself thinking: God, how did he have such a good idea, so instinctually. Thus, I think to be around him is definitely a good time and he’s someone a lot of people kind of learn from. Something else I admire about him is that he is not afraid to try new things such as ideas or technologies. I mean, he didn’t even use a computer until 2005 and he’s someone who appeals to young people and he’s well into his 50s and that inspires me a lot as a young person. It gives you hope that at a time when there is a youth-obsessed culture and the idea that new technology is for young people, there is also the idea that we can all contribute and grow and make change for many, many decades.

How did you get drawn to a portentous figure like him in the first place? What was it like?
After my graduation, which was at the Brown University, I was interested in travelling and I had a Chinese friend, Stephanie Tung, who invited me back home. I loved being in Beijing and learning Mandarin. So, while Tung was curating a show in Beijing that was in early 2009, about eight or nine months before the Munich show, she invited me in to make the video. The exhibition was his New York photographs shot when he was living there in the 1980s.

Meeting Ai Weiwei from day one was just me with the camera in hand having a reason to be there as I was vouched for by someone else making it very informal. He didn’t pay much attention because he is really used to being filmed a lot. In his life, he typically has his own camera crew watching him for various projects.

The project that I was filming was really him really looking at these images like a time capsule that he hadn’t seen. He hadn’t developed thousands of these pictures and not seen them in some cases for, I guess, 20 years. He got very reminiscent thinking about the time when he lived in New York being a young man. And to have a young American person who is living in Beijing ask him questions about that time — was a really special, kind of surreal moment.

I think he could also perceive that I didn’t really have any preconceived notions about him, which was a nice way of saying that I hadn’t done weeks and weeks of research…So I would really ask these open-minded questions. And as you can see in the film, he gets interviewed a lot these days and people also have an idea how they are going to put him in their story. I think that it is useful for him and frustrating at times.

How was it shooting in China? How does this happen that he is getting filmed a lot but at the same time watched a lot in terms of surveillance?
I think that it is a little bit him using the tactics of the authorities in a way to bring him power and safety. A lot of activists in China are attuned to it. If you live in a society where you know some stories are not going to make it to the news or will be denied by greater power, you react to it this way. In this era of consumer technology, it is almost instinctual to use film, cell-phone cameras or a cheap video camera, which is really easy to get. At the same time, police have integrated that into their protocol and it’s basically required in police force documents.

As Ai Weiwei says in the film, camera can be used for intimidation through real footage to expose truth to the world and that is how activists and even Ai Weiwei put it online, in a movie and share. The intention is to intimidate which is where Ai Weiwei leads the pack with all many dissidents and artists. Even though he says he is not fearless in the film, he is one of the people with the most balls to go forward. A lot of censorship starts with self-censorship. In the film, there is intimidation, so sometimes people decide not to talk about things. Ai Weiwei is like every other activist but he is both especially talented and has a higher profile by doing this kind of work, which he gains by pushing, and he has that instinct to push. I think that documentation is partly a radical maneuver and partly artistic. Back in the 80s, when he was photographing himself in New York is a part of that. With camera, he says, I have proof and he can ask what is yours?

Do you feel that there is a misconstrued image to him as well? In the documentary he is called a hooligan.
As I was working on this, I encountered various kinds — skeptics and haters of Ai Weiwei, supporters of Chinese system, people in general art world, people saying I am sick of him he gets so much attention, has an approach of in your face, etc. I encountered a lot of extreme reactions throughout the world. Although, I can’t officially show the film in China, but people from China located around the world realised they didn’t know him before the film. I made the film to get to the truth, which is, of course, subjective but I didn’t take anything for granted regarding what Ai Weiwei said about himself. I saw him answer many questions many times and went through documentation. But it leaves a lot for people to decide for themselves, that is the beauty of a documentary film, it gives enough time for the viewer to make a range of conclusions.

Being from India, at times, in the international press status quo is painted as extensively repressed whereas there are undercurrents.
Part of what I wanted to do in making a documentary film was to let people have a picture of China. Today, I feel it’s not how you see it shaped regarding the daily life and a kind of life you are trying to push for — political engagement from fellow citizens, which is very difficult and that a lot of people are doing now. Total suppression is false. Online, vibrant conversation is constantly going on and is one step ahead of the censors. Artists, intellectuals, young people are simply not twiddling their thumbs. His passport is withheld since 2011 but still he’s pushing as much as he can. To look at it from outside and see one side is missing the point.

On 30th July, 6.30 pm
At Alliance Française de Bombay, New Marine Lines.

Klayman’s upcoming project includes Tomorrow We Disappear, a feature documentary on Kathputli, which is claimed to be India’s last magician’s colony.

Kathputli colony is a slum area in West Delhi where people ranging from puppeteers, and acrobats to the conventional magicians are now surviving in a ramshackle state while the documentary aims to posit the picture before the 1950s, when they were a mainstream source of entertainment.

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