Chronicling some of the very tangible costs of dissident behavior in societies much less freer than ours, Danish filmmaker Andreas Johnsen’s Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case is an absorbing nonfiction look at renowned Chinese multimedia artist Ai Weiwei, who, after just under three months of isolated imprisonment with no formal charges, is transferred to house arrest and put on a year’s probation, barred from giving interviews or having a domestic online presence.
Alison Klayman’s superb 2012 documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, offered up a much more rounded portrait of the man as an artist, though that film also dealt heavily with the political activism (including spearheading a citizens’ investigation into the more than 5,400 children who were killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in large part owing to shoddy government construction) which landed Ai in trouble with Chinese authorities. Following a contentious arrest, Klayman’s film actually ends with Ai emerging from his aforementioned confinement.
Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case, then, tracks his cautious reemergence and attempts to come to grips with the emotional and physical fallout (sleep difficulties, a fog of depression) stemming from his detention. It takes its title from the fact that Ai’s company, Fake Limited, is also saddled with a dubious $2.5 million tax fraud case. When he has to pre-pay a $1.5 million bond in order to appeal the sentence (whether this is part of the Chinese court system or yet another special contrivance created just for Ai isn’t quite clear, though the harassment of the sole defense attorney who doesn’t abandon him makes clear that the deck is certainly stacked), supporters make paper airplanes out of currency and lob their donations into his courtyard.
For better or worse, Johnsen’s film is less a study of China as a society in flux, and more an unobtrusive document of personality; while Ai and some of his friends (foreigners and Chinese citizens alike) wax about the inability of disenfranchised farmers to connect with one another, and foment dialogue of dissent and social change, the movie basically clings to its subject’s travails, and doesn’t make an attempt to expand its field of vision to include the people Ai inspires. Other parts of the film detail his burgeoning family commitments and responsibility; we see him spending time with the son, Ai Lao, fathered by mistress Wang Fen (though we don’t see his longtime wife and fellow artist Lu Qing).
In certain ways this is limiting, but what’s also interesting about this approach is the degree and manner in which Ai’s voice, his very being, then rises like a flickering flame gathering strength. Subdued at first, Ai skirts regulations in creative ways (penning an op-ed on Beijing for Newsweek in lieu of giving an interview), and eventually tests the boundaries in quintessentially mock-respectful, sardonic fashion: determined to out-survey the surveillance state, Ai sets up a self-surveillance project in which he round-the-clock live-streams four web cameras from his heavily watched and videotaped house.
For his pièce-de-résistance, Ai undertakes an art project, entitled S.A.C.R.E.D., to exactingly recreate and thus highlight the absurdity of his detention, where he was cut off from all contact with friends or family and kept in solitary confinement, save for daily questionings and two guards who remain in his cramped cell with him, even as he slept. As he struggles with certain details, he ruminates about what it takes to live a full life, and what the mind wants to forget.
In this regard, Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case recalls Jafar Panahi’s 2012 house-arrest documentary, This Is Not a Film, which was also about art, creativity and the impulses behind basic human freedom finding the cracks in autocratic crackdown. Some of the opinions Ai shares are certainly just as dangerous and subversive to the state as the offenses for which he was previously punished; at one point Ai opines that with a free and open media for all, revolution would come within a month, while later he says of the government, “One day it will completely collapse. I’m trying to figure out which day, and it’s very hard.” One thing is clear—whatever China’s political future, Ai and others like him, even removed as they are from the political system, will have had a hand in shaping it, because the heart bends toward hope and openness.
Brent Simon is a regular contributor to Screen Daily, Paste, Playboy and Magill’s Cinema Annual, among many other outlets, as well as a member and former three-term president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him onTwitter and on his blog.
Director: Andreas Johnsen
Writer: Andreas Johnsen
Starring Ai Weiwei
Release Date: May 16, 2014 (limited)