Whether you call it destiny, bashert or yuanfen, for Alison Klayman, it all came down to housing. Living, that is, with a Beijing roommate who, in 2008, asked her if she was interested in doing a companion video for a new exhibition opening in the gallery where the roommate worked. The artist: Ai Weiwei, who is today generally considered to be the finest living Chinese artist.
For Klayman, who moved to Beijing following her graduation from Brown University in 2006, it was the beginning of a three-year process that resulted in the first-time filmmaker being awarded a Special Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which opens this weekend in Philadelphia.
"It was my dream to do documentary films," says the 27-year-old Wynnewood native and member of the Akiba (now Barrack) Hebrew Academy class of 2002. "I ended up in China to try my hand at doing things abroad — as a journalist and as a documentary filmmaker."
Despite not being able to speak Mandarin at first (she is now fluent in it, as well as in Hebrew), Klayman became a sought-after stringer for several news organizations, including the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and National Public Radio.
During her time in China, she actively participated in Jewish community life, becoming involved in a congregation known as Kehillat Beijing, tutoring local Jewish girls for their B'nai Mitzvot and starting the Beijing chapter of Moishe House.
Her news background helped Klayman, recently named as one of ArtInfo's "30 Under 30" artists to watch in 2012, understand the gravity of the opportunity afforded her by her roommate. Ai had recently come to international recognition thanks to his involvement with the Bird's Nest stadium, one of the centerpieces of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It would still be three years before he was named the most powerful artist in the world by ArtReview in 2011. He was also that year's runner-up for Time magazine's Person of the Year.
During that time, Ai became as well-known for his attacks, frequently via Twitter — he has been known to tweet eight hours a day — on the Chinese government's policies on silencing dissidents, restricting freedom of speech and other human rights violations as he is for his exhibitions at London's Tate Modern Turbine Hall and Tokyo's Mori Art Museum.
Despite his fame, Ai's activism over the last few years has come at a price: His blog, which received millions of hits, was shut down; his home has been ringed by surveillance cameras; he has been placed under house arrest, as well as beaten by police; his studio in Shanghai was torn down and, in the most visible example of the Chinese government trying to make an example of him, he was arrested and held incommunicado for almost three months last year. It was an act that brought worldwide condemnation and calls for his release from the artistic and human rights communities, as well as from world leaders like U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Klayman, who had a front-row seat to virtually everything that happened to Ai from 2008 to 2011, knew from the beginning that she was on to something special.
"I felt that this was a person I wanted to know more about — extremely charismatic and also enigmatic," she says. "I had lived in China for two years when I met him, and had never met anyone who spoke like him, so boldly and so critically. I knew the audience would feel the same way, that they would want to hang around with him for 90 minutes."
Despite the differences in culture and age — Ai is 55 — Klayman could identify with her subject's efforts to bring social justice to China, regardless of the price he paid.
As she explains it, "I see the act of questioning as a Jewish value, and the idea of bearing witness and shining a light on dark parts" of society or history was something "I feel was ingrained in me from lessons of the Holocaust and other episodes in Jewish history. I also believe that tikkun olam applies to the whole world, including China."
Bearing witness meant that Klayman was present for highs like Ai's triumphant openings around the world, and lows like constant scrutiny by every level of the state security apparatus — plus physical confrontations like the harrowing scene in the film where Ai comes face to face in Chengdu with a policeman who detained him the last time he was there. As Klayman continues to shoot, waves of policemen, both uniformed and plainclothes, attack Ai and his own cameraman.
Klayman is as sanguine about these incidents off-camera as Ai is on-camera.
"He's not reckless, and he's not careening toward being some martyr," she says. "At the same time, there are moments when he has no filter, and he seems to be saying the most provocative thing he can say. But he does have the calculation in his head about what he can reasonably push with."
As for her own comfort level, Klayman admits being concerned about what would happen to her — up to a point. "Even just showing up at his house and thinking about the security cameras, I would do this quick calculation in my head: 'Where is that tape going to go, who is going to see that?' But I never felt that I was important enough and that they were coordinated enough to really know what I was doing," she says, adding that her real fear "was for Weiwei and the Chinese citizens I was traveling with — the risks they were taking were much greater than mine; the consequences for them were much more severe."
With the critical and commercial success of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, it's a safe bet that Klayman is now important enough to be on the radar in China, especially since she became a de facto spokeswoman for the artist last year after his arrest.
She was in New York editing her film at the time, and her extensive knowledge of both the man and his work made her a "get" for numerous news outlets. It was an initially disorienting experience, she says, for someone who had spent her career thus far behind the camera to suddenly be thrust in front of it, but she knew there was no choice.
"I had no question that it was the right thing to do, but it was also earlier than I expected to be speaking about the project, so it was kind of a 'What Would Weiwei do?' kind of moment," she recalls. "I watched him speak out for countless other people. I felt like, at least I've had public-relations training from the best of them — watching Weiwei for several years was watching someone figure out the best way to get the message across."
Judging by the response to her film, Klayman has definitely learned how to get her — and Ai's — message across. "I consistently get people who have seen the film telling me that they can't wait for my next movie, which is all a filmmaker could hope for," she says.
Whether that next movie will be based in China remains to be seen. She returned in November 2011 to see Ai, bringing him bagels and cream cheese — he picked up a taste for Jewish food when he worked at the Second Avenue Deli while living in New York in the late 1980s and early 1990s — and a finished copy of the film.
She says he was happy with the finished result, but that he is happier to know that "it's reaching so many people and the story is going to be shared in so many places — that has really excited him." But she says she has not been back "since Sundance, so I don't know if I'm going to have visa problems or not. I'm really hopeful; I would very much like to go back and do more work there."
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry opens on Aug. 10 at the Ritz Five in Philadelphia. For more information, go to www.landmarktheatres.com or call (215) 925-7900.