Q: How did you meet Ai Weiwei?
A: When I graduated from Brown University in 2006 I wanted to travel abroad to have adventures, learn a new language, and try to get work as a journalist and documentary filmmaker. I ended up going to China and unexpectedly staying for four years. It wasn't until 2008 that I first met Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. My roommate in Beijing, Stephanie Tung, was curating an exhibition of his photographs for a local gallery, and she invited me to make a video to accompany that show. Ai Weiwei liked the video I made for his exhibition, which helped pave the way for building a trusting relationship. Those first few weeks of filming were enough to convince me that he was a charismatic and fascinating character and that I wanted to dig deeper into his story.
Q: How long did it take you to document everything?
A: I filmed material for this documentary from December 2008 up until late 2011. I was in a good position to do this project because I lived in Beijing for many years and also spoke enough Mandarin to shoot alone without an interpreter. I traveled with Ai Weiwei for his shows and activities throughout China, as well as in Europe and the US. In 2011, I was already editing the film in New York when Ai Weiwei was detained, which forced me to go back to film additional footage in Beijing and also of protests around the world.
Q: Did you ever get in trouble while shooting the film in China?
A: I did not run into problems ever while shooting the film in Beijing where I lived and worked as an accredited journalist. The tensest moments of shooting were during the two trips when I accompanied him to Chengdu, in Sichuan Province. On those trips he was going to various local authorities in order to file complaints or lawsuit requests, so we knew it was likely we would run into difficulty. On both trips, at some point in the shooting I was pulled aside and asked to delete footage, or had tape confiscated (nothing important was ever lost, though, thanks to a habit of frequently changing tapes). I was never concerned about my personal safety, however. My primary concern was what was going to happen to Ai Weiwei and his assistants/volunteers/associates who were all Chinese citizens and faced more serious consequences.
Q: Has Ai Weiwei seen the film?
A: Yes he has. It was important for him to review the film after his release from detention and before it premiered at Sundance. His immediate response was that this is an engaging film but also an accurate depiction of what he has been trying to accomplish the last few years. "This film is about freedom of expression," he said in a January 2012 conversation with our film team. "It's about very essential human rights, and it's about the very essential quality of life to express yourself, to use all the possibilities and all the kinds of forms, voice and actions, to struggle. And the struggle itself has meaning, the meaning is about life."
Q: How will people in China get to see this film?
A: We are limited in our ability to show it publicly in China, though in Hong Kong and Taiwan we might have better luck. Later this year we hope to get the film out in the mainland using the same methods Ai Weiwei uses to distribute his own films, including online and underground methods. In the meantime, we've got friends keeping their eyes out for the first bootlegs in mainland DVD shops!
Q: How is Ai Weiwei able to tweet and how can I follow him in English?
A: Twitter is blocked within Mainland China's "Great Firewall," but through a few very simple measures it is possible for Chinese Internet users to "jump" over the firewall, most commonly using a VPN (virtual private network). Ai Weiwei tweets regularly at the handle @aiww, almost exclusively in Mandarin though he often will read and reply to English messages as well. Following the film's feed @AWWNeverSorry, or a crowd-sourced translation feed, @aiwwenglish, are the best ways to stay appraised of his online activities.
Q: What is the song that Ai Weiwei's is singing at the end of the film?
A: He is singing a made-up children's song about a mythic alpaca-like creature, the "grass mud horse" (caonima, or 草泥马).This name in Chinese sounds very much like a filthy obscenity, and through the use of this and other homonyms/puns in the song, Chinese netizens are able to humorously subvert online censors. This song became a viral sensation with many different video versions in the last few years. You can read more about it and see some videos in this great New York Times article.
Q: What would Ai Weiwei like audiences to do after seeing the film?
A: In his own words: "I think (by seeing the film) the audience will first have some knowledge about who I am and what kind of issues I am always concerned about as an artist. I think they should really think that freedom of expression is very valuable, and they should treasure this right. In many areas and locations around the world, you can completely lose your freedom simply because you are asking for freedom. You even never have a chance to speak out.
In many developed societies people take freedom of expression for granted, but at the same time it would be a crime to be ignorant of the efforts that other people make for this right. Humans share all values as a common property. You cannot pretend you don't know it, and you can't say it has nothing to do with me. That would only make you as a very selfish person and very shortsighted.
What made me a recognizable figure is only because I do have an issue, and also because I successfully use the Internet, to a degree. I can communicate more freely through the Internet and media to carry out the message, so this is very important- you have the message and you have a way to carry it out. I hope people watching this they also can realize that, I think today we are living in a very different world and today we do have new possibilities, and we can make the world into a better place for everybody."