Our work can be seen as a reflection of all the works and people that have inspired us on our journey. For Alison Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, The Brink), she desired to be a documentarian because of her parents, who loved to read history books. To her, documentary was getting to be a part of creating a reliable and raw account of history for future generations. But she never would have fully realized that without the revelations of art that eventually became guideposts for her illustrious career. Here, she breaks down the five works that changed her life.
1. The Marcel Duchamp Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Alison Klayman: I grew up near the Philadelphia Museum of Art and in high school. I still remember going to their permanent Duchamp collection. You’ll see a mix of traditional art forms like a painting, and then you’ll also see cheeky stuff, like a urinal on its side. He also had these wild titles for his works, like Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. I actually bonded with Ai Weiwei over Duchamp. Modern art has really influenced my work, and I think that exploring art can help inspire someone else with their work too.
A lot of the works I am drawn to end up crossing different genres or have humor amongst a very serious pursuit or story. To me, that is life. It is messy and has a lot of different meanings. Even in the darkest moments, there is humor. In the lightest moments, there is a dark political resonance. When I look back now it makes a lot of sense why these works touched me—it is a commentary on aesthetics but you aren’t necessarily looking at something that is beautiful.
2. Fiddler on the Roof
I had 12 years of Jewish day school education and my grandparents were Holocaust survivors, so I always had a clear idea of where my family and I came from. Not only did the conflict of tradition versus modernity at the center of it shape my identity, but so did the music and the drama of it all. I recommend more people start looking to musicals for inspiration.
3. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
This is the first literary non-fiction book I read and understood, and it’s also one that bonded my dad and I. This book is about the first astronauts who took part in the first human spaceflight program for NASA, and it’s this consumable, visual telling of history that wowed me. We can learn a lot as filmmakers by looking at how journalists approach storytelling. Getting to become a definitive part of history like this book is what appeals to me about documentary film. That, and the idea that you get to see into a world and ride shotgun in someone else's life is thrilling.
4. The Plays of Anna Deavere Smith
She is so interesting because she pioneered a style that’s like documentaries, but for theater. I think the right term is verbatim theatre, which is a form of theatre where precise words spoken by people in an interview is transformed into a play. She typically performs solo. I saw her most recent work, Notes from the Field, which is about the school-to-prison pipeline and she has monologues from actual figures of the Black Lives Matter movement. There’s something powerful about seeing how a genre can be interpreted in a different medium, and how art can come through non-fiction.
5. The Thick of It, a series by Armando Iannucci
It’s very much like Veep in how it presents a version of the truth that is also heightened, original, and funny. A friend that I knew as a reporter told me that everyone wants to believe that things in D.C. are like House of Cards but it’s really The Thick of It and Veep. That stuck with me. I definitely felt like I was seeing that when I was making The Brink—the hilarity in the incompetence, the naked ambition, the proud ignorance. When I started talking to our editing team, I used that as a reference.