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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

When the Olympics were hosted in China four years ago, a much celebrated feature was the so-called Bird's Nest Stadium. The stadium was lauded for its beauty, with elegantly swooping spirals. Well, the man who helped design the Bird's Nest is one of China's best-known contemporary artists, Ai WeiWei. In the years since 2008, Ai has emerged as a leading Chinese dissident, a voice for individual freedom.

This week, a new documentary film about him opens in theaters, it's called "Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry." Ai has been jailed, released, prosecuted, and fined by the authorities in China since he began criticizing the government publicly. The Chinese government claims the issue is outstanding taxes. But the artist maintains his differences with the regime go a lot deeper.

Filmmaker and former ALL THINGS CONSIDERED intern, Alison Klayman, spent three years filming Ai WeiWei, and she says he's right. His problem with the government isn't just about taxes.

ALISON KLAYMAN: It really has to do with his desire to push the boundaries and to speak out. The fact that he could be very successful, and he is very successful internationally, but because he wants to take that sort of gadfly position; I mean, he wants to communicate and express himself, and it often goes into coming into conflict with the Chinese government.

SIEGEL: This is not someone who says I just want to do my art, leave me alone, I'm not here to challenge the government. He's being provocative. He wants to poke the state and the police apparatus in the eye.

KLAYMAN: And when I first met him, for me that was a really big question. Are we seeing him abandoning, you know, receding from the artistic practice and moving more into some sort of firmly political space? That dichotomy for me fell away pretty quickly as I got to know him, because I really think for him, what it means to be an artist for him means to question, it means to be engaged with society.

So, for him, when he sees these issues and for him rule of law and transparency, these are big issues that he thinks his society needs to deal with. He almost can't keep quiet.

SIEGEL: He took up the cause of families whose children died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. They were in schools, the earthquake happened in the afternoon in the school day, and thousands of children lost their lives. He took up the cause of the construction of the school buildings - had it been as they say they are, I gather, tofu construction. And for this, in Chengdu, he gets into some trouble with the police, claims he has beaten by a police officer and he pursues that, knowing - he keeps on saying, I will not win in this process, however you must go through it step by step. You must do it by the rules.

KLAYMAN: Yeah, he's going through the system and saying, look at how this actually works. If someone actually tries to sort of make a complaint about an injustice, and this is where you end up, even with trying to the very, very end.

SIEGEL: Yeah, the way he's pursuing his case about which he is totally serious that he's both been struck by a police officer, he says, and also the system is covering up that fact. His lawsuit against all that is almost close to an act of performance art, which is to say we must have this entire performance. We must see how the state fails to cope with my claim, and that way we see the result.

KLAYMAN: And a lot of his artwork, I think, is about setting up conditions and then seeing what happens. He's not able to pull the strings. He doesn't know what's going to happen when he shows up. Maybe he could guess. But in the end, he ends up creating these scenarios that have incredibly revealing, sometimes poetic, sometimes Kafkaesque, comedic, whatever results, because he goes into these situations maybe that other people don't and he brings a camera.

SIEGEL: Another Chinese artist, I believe, says in the course of your documentary: Ai WeiWei has a hooligan side, so he knows the deal with other hooligans.

(LAUGHTER)

KLAYMAN: Yeah, you know, I've definitely heard other people say, yeah, I thought of using that word when I was writing an article about him. I mean, I think part of his appeal and why his appeal goes beyond simply that of an artist, or simply that of an activist or a rights advocate, is I think because of his incredible sense of humor, the fact that he doesn't have to take himself so seriously all the time while, as you said, he is very genuine and very concerned about the issues that he's talking about. That's why he ends up having this appeal, has, you know, so many young followers online.

SIEGEL: There's a moment towards the very end of your film in which Ai WeiWei - who's been in a secret detention and he's been under interrogation for weeks and a couple of months, actually - he's released. And lots of reporters are waiting for him. And this man - who has been the epitome of rebelliousness, of in-your-face protests against the system - says I can't talk to you, I can't talk to you, I'm sorry. It's a condition of my release. I can't say anything.

He appears and that seemed to be broken. Was he? Was he broken by the interrogation?

KLAYMAN: I think it was important to have that at the end because, first of all, this is a story that is constantly going on. So, in that moment, to see what really happened to him in that moment, that will never change. I mean, that day, as you said, he appears broken. He probably, you know, was to some regard. When he watched that footage himself, he said, My God, I didn't recognize myself. You know, I barely looked human.

I think that moment is very intense. But I also see that moment, certainly its role in the film, as a question to the audience. You know, given everything you've seen for the last 90 minutes, the kind of man that you think this is, and clearly they have dealt a harsh blow and they have broken him for this moment, but what do you think is going to happen next?

The truth is he is not broken and he is very much in resolve to continue all the work that he's doing. But these are new conditions for him. His life is not the same as it was the few years that I captured. And he is very much trying to figure out, how do I respond to this detention? How do I continue to create? How can I push the boundaries given that the conditions of my life are more restrictive and are difficult? And the biggest threat, of course, is to his family life; for he has a young son that he very much does not want to miss growing up.

SIEGEL: Alison, if we were walking around a Chinese city and you were interpreting for me, and we ask people, do you know who Ai WeiWei is, would people say typically yes. If we only got to the university would they know? Who would know who he is in China?

KLAYMAN: The people would know who he is would tend to be either members of the intellectual or artistic class, or young people who are active online and kind of looking at more then just the regular mainstream kind of sites, to be perfectly honest. Which means that if we did a sample size on a, you know, busy street in Beijing, we're not likely to find a lot of people who know who he is.

But for me that's not necessarily a sign of his relevance or irrelevance in China. I think that's a sign of what happens when the mainstream media doesn't cover you, you can't become a celebrity. But whether his ideas are kind of infecting the whole population online, I really do believe that his message has a lot of appeal. It's just difficult for him to be a well-known celebrity.

SIEGEL: Well, Alison Klayman, thank you very much for talking with us about your film.

KLAYMAN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Alison Klayman's documentary is called "Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry."

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