Oscar shortlisting for Alison Klayman’s documentary on Ai Weiwei opens new frontiers

Alison Klayman with Ai Weiwei. (Official movie site)
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Early on the morning of Tuesday, Dec. 4, Alison Klayman saw her inbox explode with congratulatory messages.

The 28-year-old New York City-based filmmaker was in Bangkok for Art in the City, a design festival where her documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, had two sold-out screenings. She was about to board a plane for the 24-hour flight back to New York City and her distributor delivered the news: her film was among 15 documentaries on the short list, down from 126, for a potential Best Documentary Oscar nomination. (Final nominees are announced Jan. 10.)

Friends and associates greeted the news with a mixture of excitement and disbelief—a long-term project with such modest beginnings had taken one step toward the pinnacle of Hollywood accolades. Shortly after getting the news, Klayman got in touch with Ai Weiwei by phone.

“He was like, ‘Man, I can’t believe this project has gone this far,’” Klayman told me when we spoke earlier this week.

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Although any award (the film has won a few, including the Sundance Special Jury Prize) is noteworthy, Klayman says that international recognition from the Academy would take the conversations around the film to a different level.

“Everyone in China has heard of the Oscar,” she said, “and if it were to reach that level it does open up conversations.” The film faces stiff competition from the likes of How to Survive a Plague, Detropia, The Central Park Five, Bully and others. (Read the Capital New York review of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry here.)

Klayman’s trajectory in the film world has been atypical. She credits her diverse background in radio and journalism with impacting her creative process and says that documentary filmmaking is a chance to do top notch journalism. Taking a lot of time to research the story, being hungry in the search for truthful information, and balancing that with a deep respect for your subjects and responsibility for how your work effects others—these are the journalistic skills that Klayman says worked for her.

“While recognizing that they’re not the same thing, I think that bringing the skills of journalism to bear—it’s not a dirty word to talk about—strengthens the work,” said Klayman, whose film was screened Wednesday night in a sold-out theater at the Museum of Modern Art. “I felt like being a critical observer in all these different aspects of his life for as long as I could, that was really my approach.”

From the beginning, Klayman wanted to take a measured, even minimalist approach to depicting the artist-activist’s life, describing previous renderings of Weiwei as “shorthanded.” She also did not want to make a “buddy pic.”

“It could have been a lot more of guiding people and pointing things out with a more strong hand,” said Klayman. “This was the kind of thing where the best contribution I could make is to let Ai Weiwei and China and the art and the authorities speak and allow people to make their own decisions about it. The choice kind of was to have a lighter touch”

Between the Chinese authorities, the inherent logistical issues, and the distribution journey (also a challenge), Klayman says that Weiwei’s 81-day detention, which happened during the editing process, was the most jarring.

“When he was detained, it was like he had no voice,” she said. “We really didn’t know what the future held in a much more dire way. We did not know if he was going to be incarcerated for many years and sent away for a long time.” When she was asked about it after the MoMA screening, Klayman said that the international pressure in the wake of his detention played a key role in his release.

If you check Weiwei’s Twitter feed, you’ll see his often epigrammatic messages, as well as lots of photos—of cats, outdoor scenes, the funky haircuts he’s given his employees—and lots of retweets about censorship. These days, Klayman said, he seems to be in good spirits, holding fast to the tenets of freedom of expression that are exemplified in the film.

“But what’s going to happen to Ai Weiwei? He does not talk that optimistically about that,” she admits. Since his release, Weiwei has been prohibited from leaving China, and has spent most of his time in his Beijing studio, creating new art, working on his legal defense, and maintaining shows around the globe (his first-ever stateside retrospective is on now at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.; an exhibition of his work is also on view at Mary Boone Gallery, at 745 5th Avenue, through Dec. 21). Even so, China’s unpredictability and unaccountability sometimes means that anything is possible, even that her film could change the game.

“It would be a whole new conversation if we are nominated,” says Klayman, “but to come this far is also great.”

Update: The film was just awarded a Silver Baton via the 2013 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (given out by Columbia Graduate School of Journalism)—which honors stories for "the strength of their reporting, storytelling and impact in the public interest"