Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case Dir. Andreas Johnsen

[Bond/360, Rosforth Film ; 2013]

Styles: China, conceptual art, political, documentary
Others: Missing (Costas Gavras), The Weather Underground, Never Sorry

In a garden outside of a gray building complex, young Ai Lao is fearful of what stands on the other side of the fence: a belligerent dog and its cacophonous barking. He expresses his apprehension to his father, Chinese conceptual artist and political tour-de-force Ai Weiwei. Ai has returned from 81 days of solitary detention imposed by the Chinese government. He explains to his son that the dog cannot jump the fence and because of this, “we are not afraid.” This is a two-folded statement; a succinct and powerful reassurance to his son, and in a broader sense, reflective of his aesthetic and political modus operandi.

Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case is Danish director Andreas Johnsen’s modestly reverent chronicle of the year following Ai’s release. Ai exists in seemingly insurmountable opposition to the government and its cruelly authoritarian grip on the Chinese people. He has been targeted under flimsy pretenses of “subversive” and pornographic content and unwarranted economic reasons. Governmental information terror casts a dark shadow on Ai’s day-to-day activity, conversations, and persona, all of which Johnsen captures in a style of mellow and graceful vérité.

Ai’s struggle extends itself in the aftermath of his detention. He is under probationary house arrest and heavy monitoring, and his company, Fake Ltd., has been charged with a $1.5 million for tax evasion. His parents (also both creative intellectuals) suffered in a similar fashion during the Anti-Rightist movement of the 1950s. In conversation with his mother, she explains that their family “always lived on the tip of a wave,” showing trepidation as to what her son may potentially encounter. Visibly subdued by his living conditions, Ai is plagued by wiretapping and disturbingly nightmare-filled sleep. He speaks of his detention with brevity, choosing his words with hesitance and even falling asleep mid-conversation. However, his impetus is anything but extinguished. At the forefront of his mind is the Chinese population, who are constantly exploited as the “servants of the world” and devoid of the liberty afforded by a resonant voice. With the support of his immediate creative community, Ai maintains a “larger than life” presence in China, and even more so internationally. He continues to broadcast his belief through proliferating content including blogs, Twitter, and other social media platforms, in the process renewing his creative practice with candor and conviction.

In one of the most insightful aspects of the documentary, Ai is exposed as a compulsive documentarian himself — his iPhone and iPad his experiential accoutrements. He has reclaimed the selfie in a meta capacity, spontaneously photographing a wedding photographer taking pictures of a couple in the park, and taking video of himself being interviewed in a car (capturing Johnson in the rearview mirror) . Living in an existence of imminent interception, he retains the power of images through his actions. He engages in dialogue and strong rapports with younger artists, whose passionate efforts are considerable elements of Ai’s foundation. In materializing the piece S.A.C.R.E.D, a six-paneled three-dimensional diorama of his time in detention, he is aided by a fleet of craftsmen who physically execute the piece, while he instructs them with painstaking and meticulous detail.

Ai states that he used to walk through the park due to concern for his blood pressure, but when he does so now, it’s tinged with the concern of paranoia as to whether he’s being followed. In documentary films about polarizing and reactionary figures, there’s a tendency to portray these figures monochromatically. Contrarily, Johnsen strays from selectively incendiary events, opting for a more thorough range of depiction. Ai’s somber state (relatively so, compared to Never Sorry, Alison Klayman’s precursor of sorts) almost teeters on the brink of defeat (to which he will ultimately not succumb). It is important to understand that outwardly anti-authoritarian figures do have moments of vulnerability, which are absolutely critical to the complexity of the their circumstances.

Ai is enamored with the order to “FUCK OFF” (the title of his exhibit at the Third Shanghai Bienniale, loosely translated as “uncooperative attitude” in Chinese. The characters F, U, C, and K are mounted on a wall outside his studio residence in neon capital typeface . He is mindful of the limits to which he is held, but manages to dance around them in his wordplay, objects, and humor, resisting the severity of the banning of interview or articles. There are gratifying moments of skillful circumvention, which include his discovery of two government spies, from whom he steal an ashtray and utilizes it as a sculpture. Johnsen’s cinematography is sensitive to detail — Ai’s interior world in the context of Beijing — and is sympatico with Ai’s aesthetic bite. In Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case, Johnsen communicates that in times of oppression, Ai’s greatest weapon is the fact that he lives performatively, and indestructibly so.

Most Read