Alison Klayman is 27 years old. She’s graduated from Brown University, written for NPR, moved to China and made a feature length documentary. Oh, and she won the Sundance Special Jury Prize this past January. I, for one, feel like a slacker compared to the multi-hyphenated journalist.
Klayman’s award winning film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry hit theaters last week on July 27 via IFC Films. The 27-year-old spent years with her subject Weiwei, 54, trying to get the full story on one of China’s most controversial art and social activists. Weiwei had a hand in designing the Beijing Olympics’ “Bird Nest” stadium but later clashed with his government over his highly publicized criticisms of Chinese democracy and transparency. I sat down with Klayman to get the full story on her. And what did I learn? That behind Never Sorry is a young woman who’s dedicated to the spirit of adventure and education.
Whether she’s on the set of a Jackie Chan movie or organic farming in Spain, Klayman’s day is always a success if she’s learned something new.
BUST: So you graduated in 2006 from Brown University. Did you expect to find yourself in China so soon?
Alison Klayman: No. It was kind of like, step 1: go abroad. Step 2: be awesome and become a journalist. Step 3: be awesome and make a documentary film. I had done a lot of radio in college but I wasn’t really interested in looking for a job in the States- I wanted to go abroad. But, China wasn’t specified. I had a friend who had family in China and she let me tag along and go there for a couple of months with her. When that trip was over she got back on a plane and I stayed.
B: Had you gone abroad before? Maybe not China but had you experienced that feeling already?
AK: Yes, I think actually that is something about Brown. Brown is the kind of place that encourages it. So, I feel like that really inspired me. I saved up lots of money and taught piano lessons in college and worked at radio stations like all these kind of things.
But, junior year I studied abroad in London and I traveled around very extensively during that semester. I went and visited all my other friends abroad. I did some volunteering on organic farms in Spain in the summer. If I had the money to do it, no one can tell me I can’t do it. That was a very liberating realization and I also felt like language learning was best in immersion settings. I actually love learning languages but didn’t take any in college because I felt like you can ace all of your tests, but then you can’t really speak.
B: I took French two years ago. Can’t speak it.
AK: I know! Spanish I had started in 9th grade and took throughout high school and I was like the best Spanish student. But I felt like my Spanish was not good enough. That’s why I went during the summer. I was pretty convinced that that’s how I wanted to learn languages.
B: You get to China, you’ve worked for NPR, how did you get those opportunities right out of college?
AK: I interned during college one summer for All Things Considered. You notice all my pieces because I had an amazing editor there who like was a champion. So I was able to kind of pitch them a few pieces but a lot of it was making your own opportunities too.
I also worked a lot of different jobs again with the intention really of getting my language skills up and making money to live. There’s a lot of kind of Craig’s Lists for ex-pats in Beijing. So one of the jobs that I answered for the ad that said, “ looking for English speaking assistants for actors in China. Some travel may be required.“
I sent in a resume and it was assisting this very famous young Chinese actress on a Jackie Chan-Jet Li movie. So I worked on this Hollywood-China co-production and was on location for five or six months. That was like one of the coolest jobs I’ve ever had.
B: How did you meet Ai?
AK: In 2008 my roommate curated an exhibition of his for a local gallery. She asked if I wanted to make a video to accompany the exhibition. I wish I could say I already knew who he was and that’s why I went to China. That’s totally not true.
Two years into being there, she was working on this show of his NY photographs. There were thousands of these black and white images. They were so gritty and romantic and historical so they really appealed to me a lot. I just went over with the team from the gallery and was kind of camera in hand.
But, we did get along and he liked the video. I think that he could see that sort of open attitude and he would respond to something like that more than someone who came, had a slick presentation and was like “this is what I want to make of you.”
B: How do you think your approach differed as a journalist instead of someone who wanted to make something specific about him?
AK: I mean, I think that I certainly had a lot of standards for proof. I didn’t see it as: “I have an artful vision.” My vision was essentially: “this is going to be well researched.” I didn’t really take anything for granted for what he was really like, what motivated him, where he was going. What label he should be put under. I saw it as this long form journalism opportunity- which is right. It’s like I wanted to be there as the story unfolded.
I came back to NY with all the footage at the end of 2010 and it was like “where’s the outline?” but I really let the material dictate what the story was.
B: You said during a Sundance video “I think that all of us need to think and respond to our social conditions whatever that may be.” What do you think we have to respond to in America?
AK: I think that, for example, even just talking about the issues that Weiwei is highlighting in his own work, like transparency. I think that’s absolutely a key ingredient to assist democracy and to a democratic system functioning.
There’s this new thing that I just read about. There’s a Super PAC ad app where you can buy the app and it will recognize a commercial and then it will give you all the information of who funded the commercial. I got so excited with transparency and technology. It’s everything that Weiwei is talking about put into action.
B: Would Ai’s story be possible without the Internet?
AK: No. Obviously, blogging and Twitter were such a big part of his life. But I really put it all into this timeline of what has Ai Weiwei been concerned about? Documentation, engagement, communication, furthering underground art movements, new ideas. All these things.
It’s not like with the Internet, Weiwei was now something else. It kind of gives him turbo fuel, suddenly he can do these things and get immediate reactions. He can be connected to some many different people. It also provides another alternative space, especially in a place like China where there’s so little space where you’re free to express yourself.
B: This is your first major film, how is to have it premiere at Sundance? Such a big venue for your first movie!
AK: It was like walking in a dream for sure. I had never been to a film festival before then. Sundance is also a place where documentaries can be treated like rock stars projects. So, we also really did get incredible amount of attention and it was definitely very surreal and I just tried to enjoy it.
After the awards ceremony, they move all the chairs aside and it becomes this one big dance party. That was probably one of the happiest moments certainly of the year, just in terms of my own emotions because it was just like “okay we went through this, it’s all done.” Now, I’ve had a taste of what it means to do work and have it shown and so I feel like I want to definitely do more work that can reach lots of people. It’s a rush and a privilege and it’s really exciting.
B: Do you have any ideas of what you’ll do next?
AK: I have a lot of ideas and I feel like for the next documentary feature this is a tough act to follow. I know how much work it all takes, so I’ll definitely be thinking long and hard to see what story and what character could follow this. I think in the meantime whether it’s shorts or radio pieces or screenplays that I’ll be just working on. Other things that will keep me kind of creative and creating new things.
B: You’re a journalist. What’s it like being interviewed by so many journalists right now?
AK: It just makes me think that I’m a really shitty interviewer. Being on the other end of it you really see what works and what doesn’t. It’s not always just about the questions. It’s about everything! I’m always trying to see things as a learning experience. I can always put a good spin on something if I think I learned something.
B: Did ever you think you’d be here?
AK: I didn’t even know this existed. I think even while filming for this project, Weiwei and I tried to wrap our brains around “what did we think was going to happen with this movie?” I’m not really sure. So when people ask questions like “do you think he let you do this because he thought you could bring the story out?” I’m like “no, I don’t think we really thought that!” I don’t really know what we thought, but I definitely never had any idea it would be this big.
Watch the trailer for Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry below!
(Photos courtesy of News Observer, New Yorker, online.wsj.com, wildchild.com and Zimbio)