In late 2008, Alison Klayman’s roommate in Beijing told her that there may be work for her. A Chinese artist she was assisting wanted a short behind-the-scenes film made about his forthcoming photography show. Klayman had just used the cash she earned working for the Summer Olympics’ website to buy a video camera.
A 24-year-old Brown graduate who had arrived in China after college knowing neither Mandarin nor Cantonese at all, Klayman had been piecing together a living while trying to manage enough time to pursue her passion, journalism, particularly radio journalism. She wrote articles for several outlets, including the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. She was a waitress at a member’s-only wine club. She worked on the sets of several movies, such as the 2008 Jet Li-Jackie Chan vehicle The Forbidden Kingdom. She tutored a handful of young women in the capital city’s expatriate Jewish community who were studying for their b’not mitzvah. She may not have known Mandarin but, having grown up attending Philadelphia’s Akiba-Barrack school, she knew Hebrew.
Klayman’s roommate, a New Jerseyite named Stephanie Tung, had been working with the artist, Ai Weiwei, for a while, and it was interesting stuff: He had black-and-white photographs from the decade-plus when he lived in New York City in the 1980s and ’90s. Tung’s job was to scan everything—the clipped negatives, the discontinuous reels from multiple cameras—organize it, and help curate. It was a compelling enough back-story to merit a 20-minute making-of documentary to run with the show, which exhibited last summer at the Asia Society in New York. Klayman did it for no pay.
“I kind of knew who Weiwei was,” Klayman, now 27, told me, familiarly using his first name. Ai had helped design the famous Bird’s Nest stadium for the Games but then conspicuously refused to attend the opening ceremonies, believing the Beijing Olympics to be a whitewash for Chinese repression and social stagnation. Initially, “we ended up just spending about a month together,” Klayman recalled.
Soon she learned of his earthquake project. In the aftermath of the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, which killed roughly 70,000 people, he supported investigations into the corruption-laden, shoddy construction of schools and other public buildings, which had surely upped the fatality rate, notably among children. He then spearheaded a unique, and indelibly Chinese, hybrid of activism and art, which he called a “Citizens’ Investigation,” that sought to recover the names of the thousands of unidentified victims.
Klayman recognized that she was in the right place at the right time and began to contemplate a feature-length documentary. “I thought he was an engaging guy who you could watch for 90 minutes no matter what,” she said. She raised money through connections made via a collector as well as from 800 backers on Kickstarter, the social project-funding website. “I steered it toward a whole view of him, not just art or just his history,” she explained. “I wanted to capture some of the other exciting stuff.”
In the meantime, a video of hers appeared online at The New Yorker in 2010 alongside her friend Evan Osnos’ profile of the artist. In March 2011, she produced a 17-minute segment on Ai for Frontline, which included his own audio recordings of the August 2010 raid on his hotel room in Chengdu, when police briefly detained him and beat him, causing internal bleeding in his head.
Then, in April, in the midst of the Arab Spring and with fears of a so-called Jasmine Revolution on the minds of Chinese leaders, Ai was detained at the airport and held for more than two months. Suddenly, Klayman had exclusive footage and the first feature documentary of an international cause célèbre, the most prominent victim of the repressive government of the world’s rising power, and very possibly the most famous Chinese person alive.
On Sunday, Klayman’s documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, will premiere as an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival. That a 27-year-old who five years ago did not own a camera and did not speak Chinese made it is a tribute to her smarts, ambition, and good fortune. Her post-college years trying to make a go of it in the recession-era gig economy resemble those of countless of her contemporaries—only on steroids, or perhaps speed. (Gen X had post-Cold War Prague and the slacker ideal; the Millennials have post-American Century Beijing and overachievement.) Yet it’s not merely careerist accomplishment that Klayman found in China. She encountered, documented, and played a role in real history. “May you live in interesting times,” goes the famous Chinese curse. But perhaps it’s only a curse for the Chinese.
“I was not someone who grew up with dreams of the Orient,” Klayman told me a few months ago, not long after Ai was released. “Honestly, China was just a coincidence.” Klayman studied history at Brown; her thesis was about black and Native American slavery in 18th-century Rhode Island. She is tall with long, very dark brown hair and a face that masks constant interest with a look of apathy.
How did she end up in China? Simple: Her friend planned to visit family in Shanghai upon graduating, and Klayman tagged along. “If she was from Latvia, I would’ve gone to Latvia,” Klayman said, raising her cadence as though asking a question, as she often does. The original plan was to stay for five months: Klayman’s friend, bored, stuck to the plan; Klayman, enthralled, moved to Beijing, the most desirable city for a young foreigner looking to make a name. “I was more interested in journalism and documentary,” she said. In addition to Mandarin, which she picked up during her time in China (she now lives in Manhattan), Klayman speaks Hebrew, from day school, and Spanish, from classes and time on a farm in Spain; by contrast, she lacked proficiency in Yiddish, her Israeli-born mother’s first language.
Klayman’s Jewish background and education played an important role sustaining her in China. Her safety net, she claimed, was the knowledge that she could always teach English, but she never did. Instead, she tutored in Hebrew. “I had five girls have a bat mitzvah,” she beamed. “It was the most rewarding thing.” (One bat mitzvah, she added with a sly smile, took place at “the wall.” It took me a second to get the joke.)
But the real Jewish Beijing story isn’t explicitly religious. It’s the high number of young Americans who penetrated the Middle Kingdom over the past decade who happen to be Jewish. There is probably no way to quantify or conclusively demonstrate this, and I haven’t tried. The best explanation likely isn’t a clever spot of armchair sociology—although, yes, I can report that there is an annual gathering of American Jews in Beijing who eat the local food for Christmas. Rather, this phenomenon is probably due to Jews’ disproportionate prevalence among the type of person—relatively affluent, well-educated, adventurous—who is likely to take off for China.
Making Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry was not too difficult from a censorship perspective, according to Klayman. Still, police would occasionally demand she hand over or delete her tapes; she grew talented at swapping them and handing over, or deleting, blanks. And not all of the film is set in China. “There’s a great scene of him eating pastrami—no, it was corned beef—at Carnegie Deli,” she said. “The scene is him meticulously wrapping up the leftovers, down to the onion rings and the pickles. And he tells the waitress that he used to work at Second Avenue Deli.”
The film depicts Ai’s activities over the last few years as an artist and advocate for free speech, transparent government, and an independent judiciary, with a focus on the earthquake campaign. Klayman was drawn to the qualities that would make him shine onscreen, she said. “He’s a personality,” was how she put it. “He’s very accessible. Just understanding what he’s about, you can understand the art—the importance of being an individual, being engaged.”
When, back in the United States, she first learned of Ai’s extended detention, she quickly Skyped with one of his assistants, who would soon learn that authorities had raided his studio outside Beijing. At the time of Ai’s arrest, the Pulitzer-winning New York Times art critic Holland Cotter cast Ai’s dissidence in the context of Chinese tradition. Going back to Confucius, he wrote, “there has been a tradition of individual scholars and intellectuals denouncing rulers for wrongdoing that was bringing disharmony to society, and particularly if that wrongdoing was injurious to innocence.” But Ai went too far, Cotter continued: “His attacks on political authority grew sharper, more persistent, more amplified. The noble Confucian model of the morally grounded intellectual speaking truth to power in a single dramatic confrontation was called on so often as to become, seemingly by intention, an unnoble and relentless insistence. And as a result, whatever immunity from reprisal he might once have enjoyed was soon gone.”
Since Ai’s release last June, dubious charges of tax non-payment and, presumably, the threat of further violence seem to have neutered him somewhat. (A harrowing scene in Klayman’s Frontline report shows Ai’s mother sobbing at the thought of harm coming to her son.) It’s possible that we have seen the last of Ai’s great provocations—except to the extent that Klayman’s film will illuminate the details of his greatest one. “I feel a tremendous amount of pressure—less now that he’s no longer in detention—to tell his story,” she said. “There’s a lot of expectation from the world that does know who he is. And it’s a much bigger world now.”