When did you first meet Ai Weiwei?
I was already living in China for two years; I went there in 2006 on a brief trip with a friend from college that turned into me staying there much longer.
I just wanted to go abroad and learn a new language, if that was involved, and do journalism. I feel like to make a documentary film was honestly my dream and obviously I came to it in my own way. I feel as though you could subtitle this movie as ‘Alison learns how to make a movie!’
It was a lot of learning by doing – my first two years in China were spent learning Mandarin. I worked on movies and I worked for the Olympic website and I covered English sports – so I feel their pain for whoever’s going to be doing that here. That’s pretty much where the story starts; it was just after the Olympics and I had just bought a camera and was eager to be using it.
So were you not familiar with a camera beforehand?
I had done a student film in college but my friend, who I did it with, she was more the film side of it but I had a lot of experience. My biggest experience was in radio journalism so I knew a lot about sound recording, but the filmmaking part was the part I was eager to get into, if only because mostly I felt like the impact of film was so big and it would be a great challenge to do something feature length. So I was eager to do short things or even little commercial web video or short news videos in order to build up those skills. My roommate at the time was actually the curator of an exhibition that Weiwei was about to put on for a local gallery in Beijing; this is how I came to know Ai Weiwei.
You weren’t looking for him directly?
|When we finally did agree we’d do this movie, he had the right to review but he didn’t ask to change a single thing.|
No, it was just a coincidence, basically. He took about 10,000 photographs during the decade that he lived in New York in the ‘80s – 1983 to 1993. My roommate had the auspicious task of being a detective and going through them all. She spent about a year doing it, with a lot of the film being processed for the first time.
At that time, Weiwei would pick up a different camera, put it down and pick it up again three months later, so it was like there were jumps in time. But these photos are amazing, you know? New York history. Tompkins Square riots, AIDS protests. There’s pretty much every major Chinese cultural figure on those cameras. It’s an amazing body of work and these were all in binders in my apartment for several months so I did look through them with my roommate Stephanie Tung, so she told me a little about who Ai Weiwei was.
I knew he spoke out against the Olympics and he had a very controversial popular blog, but then I was told he was a well-known artist - I wasn’t exactly an art world insider so I took everyone’s word for that. Then in December 2008 Stephanie said, “Look, I think the show is missing something. It would be great if there was a video to go along with it, to tell a little bit more of the story.” I think both the story of Weiwei’s time in New York but also the way that photography and documentation is a part of his artistic practice. I think they were there the two issues and she said, “Would you like to make a video for the exhibition?” I was eager and underemployed, so I said yes.
And that was how I spent December 2008 – filming with Weiwei every morning and editing every afternoon. That was essentially how I came to this project and how I came to him. I certainly didn’t know where everything was going to go when that all started. I felt as a character you could watch something longer than twenty minutes about him and you would think something about China that you hadn’t thought before. I had material from those few weeks of filming and I felt like I had to follow up it – obviously the big thing was his Earthquake project was starting and he told me a lot about that and how he began this investigation. So I sort of bookmarked that in my mind: “Okay, when the Earthquake anniversary comes up, you should come back to see Weiwei and see what he’s done.”
In the film, you hear him say things and see him do things that you would never believe somebody would let be recorded for a documentary. There’s a scene with his mother, which is absolutely extraordinary. As you got to know him, do you think you were becoming one of his media projects yourself?
That’s a very good question. I felt I had a very unique role in this whole constellation of documentation that existed around Ai Weiwei because there were journalists coming and going all the time, but really no one was doing anything long term; it was usually a one off. You see them in the film and that was important also to show, I thought.
There are the two Danish reporters, there’s the New Yorker – he did a very long piece so he spent about a month. Again, that’s on video. All the time people coming and going. Then he has his videographer who is documenting for Weiwei, but that’s at Weiwei’s behest. So, Weiwei never ever made the suggestion to me about what I should film, what I should include, “This would make a good whatever” – to his total credit, when we finally did agree we’d do this movie, he had the right to review but he didn’t ask to change a single thing.
So he did look at it?
He did look at it, before it was premiered at Sundance. I was not willing to show it publically until he saw it because the stakes were raised in so many ways. But he didn’t ask to change a single thing. And I think it’s fair enough because Weiwei’s got so much going on that this was not a real priority. But I do sometimes wish, “Why didn’t he tell me when something good is happening?”
For example, I checked in on Twitter at one point and he was doing this photoshoot with all these lawyers that ended up in that magazine. But I’m like, “God, that would have been awesome to film, if someone would just tell me when these things are happening.” But the thing is, I had so many tools to stay on top of him, plus I also knew everyone at the studio and his schedule. So really I felt in some ways that I had to stalk Weiwei.
There’s a scene where Weiwei goes to see his illegitimate son, how did you manage getting that on film?
Well, that was the one area where I felt that I had to directly ask him. That was something I asked him about for a long time – I knew who she was and I could have gone anyway, but to be honest I needed a good relationship with Weiwei throughout this project so I would say that’s the other part of it. I wanted to capture this whole world, how he’s documenting himself, how journalists are interviewing him but I felt like I had one mission that was so different from everyone else, which was I was trying to find those moments with his mum or with his son, which I don’t think anybody else had the mandate to see. So in that sense I feel like my camera was one of many but had its own unique purpose.
This is a guy who lives his life online and promotes transparency, but he has a private life just like everybody else. You see how he dissuades the Chinese journalists from interviewing his mum; I just lucked out that his mum came over that one day. I just went for it because I thought, “Who knows if he’ll give me permission later?” So I started talking to her and I was like, he’ll stop me if he doesn’t want me to.
Would you describe yourself as a Ai Weiwei superfan?
No. Only to the degree to which I researched him.
But now that you know him so well, do you still have that idolatry that some people have for him, or do you think because you know him, “That’s just a man…”?
I think he’s just a man, but that’s why he’s especially talented and especially bold, and both of those are very admirable qualities. He really knows what he wants to say, and he says it very accurately.
How would you describe your relationship with him? How has it changed? Do you feel like your conversations are noticeably different or is he still keeping his distance?
|I feel as though a lot of our interaction is keeping each other in the loop.|
It’s tough because the last time I saw him in person was in December; being there in person makes all the difference, especially since you don’t have real phone conversations, but today I took a picture in front of the Serpentine and texted him, “Serpentine time!” and it made him laugh. I feel as though a lot of our interaction is keeping each other in the loop; we were tweeting a lot last night. It’s really amazing I think, he’s seeing the impact of the film and it's astounding both of us. It’s funny meeting people who saw me filming him along the way, and especially the beginning when my camera was really small. I’ve had people say to me – to be honest, I think this is totally spot on – “When I first saw you I thought, ‘How is this young woman going to capture this guy?’” And I’d be sceptical too, but I really do feel I was committed to doing a good job.
When this comes out on DVD, will you be willing to recut it with extra footage?
The recutting it sounds exhausting; it just made me tired hearing that word. But there are some plans already, I’ve trying to work on it in my spare time but there’s going to be at least an hour’s worth of deleted scenes. His brother is in the film a little bit, but there’s an hour-long interview also there with amazing stories. Even with his son’s mother, there’s a whole interview there and that was very personal.
There are people who argue that with Ai Weiwei, it’s a live art thing he’s doing, manipulating things, places, people, controlling the media. Did you ever see him ‘playing’ someone?
My roommate told me that he has made interviewers cry. And I felt in meeting him, I had a lot of respect for him as a formidable opponent – not that he’s an opponent – but I really thought that the movie had to also be about this character’s relationship to the truth and how he plays with interviewers… all these kinds of things. That’s why I felt I needed to cover the spread; I needed to watch him with as many people as possible, to film him in as many contexts as possible. In the end I couldn’t show you every time he was doing something interesting, because in the end I can’t show you 200 hours, I can only show you 90 minutes.
It’s not a spoiler to say the film ends with Ai Weiwei being humbled by the Chinese government’s tax department, forcing him to not give interviews and locking him away in his house. You weren’t there at the time, did you call him up about it?
In the film, that’s all Reuters footage because I was in New York. I talked with him on the phone that night, saying, “Do you need me on a plane? I’ll be there tomorrow.” And he was like, ‘There’ll be time; you don’t need to come right away.” And I was like, “Well, there’s an ending!” It’s hard to know with a documentary, especially with someone like him… where does it end? To me it’s an ending that acts as a big question to the audience. Given what you know of him, what you’ve seen in last 90 minutes, that they have dealt the ultimate blow… what do you think is going to happen next?