Mixed media artist Ai Weiwei is the rare Chinese iconoclast whose provocative output manages to circumvent countless efforts by the government to censor him, which is a particularly impressive feat given his current ubiquity.
Last year, Alison Klayman’s documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” followed Ai through the aftermath of his work on the 2008 Beijing Olympics, his daring critique of government aid “The Sichuan Earthquake Names Project” and his eventual imprisonment by the government for 80 days. Now comes Danish filmmaker Andreas Johnsen’s “Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case,” which premiered this week at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam. An unofficial follow-up to “Never Sorry,” “The Fake Case” explores Ai’s yearlong period of probation after his release in 2011.
At the same, Ai himself has recently completed a documentary, “Stay Home!,” a touching portrait of a strong-willed young woman with AIDS fighting the government for better care. The movie extends Ai’s cinematic presence from in front of the camera to behind it with equal resolve. “Stay Home!” screened earlier this month at the CPH: DOX festival in Copenhagen, where Ai — currently banned from leaving his country by Chinese authorities — also remotely curated a series about “the role and responsibility of artists” that included everything from “Dr. Strangelove” to “Sicko” and Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia.” In light of that productivity, he might be the most insuppressible suppressed artist of his time. (Watch Ai’s presentation for “Stay Home!” and his CPH: DOX series in the video below.)
Ai’s portly, bearded appearance has turned him into the modern Buddha of creative activism, and the attention he has received in such a short period of time attests to his allure: At this point, he’s like the star of a transmedia franchise beyond his control. “The Fake Case” functions like a sequel to “Never Sorry,” picking up where the previous movie left off by revealing Ai’s life under governmental scrutiny and his willingness to remain active despite increasing attempts to slow him down. But while Johnsen competently follows Ai over the course of more than a year of contemplation and anger, “The Fake Case” doesn’t introduce anything new to the equation, and mainly succeeds by virtue of its subject’s inherent appeal.
Ai’s extensive period in jail stemmed from a phony charge of “tax evasion” leveled against his company, Fake Ltd., where he does most of his work. As “The Fake Case” begins, Ai shows an extreme reticence to speak openly about his experiences given the restrictions of his probation, but he never recedes from the spotlight. Prohibited from granting interviews, he instead writes a condemnatory article for Newsweek; instead of detailing his jailing for the press, he crafts a series of complex dioramas (unveiled over the summer in Venice) illustrating the claustrophobic nature of his time in solitary confinement, where he lived toe to toe with a pair of guards at every moment. When there’s wiggle room for Ai to further his cause, he wiggles freely.
“The Fake Case” contextualizes Ai’s struggle by positioning it in relation to his family history. In one thoughtful sequence, he’s seen in conversation with his 80-year-old mother discussing his upbringing among intellectuals engaged in a similar struggle with Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s. “Chinese society is a big wave,” she tells him. “Our family is always at the top of it.”
Despite that legacy, however, Ai’s latest challenges in “The Fake Case” are firmly rooted in the present. While “Never Sorry” explored the personal dimension of Ai’s career in more detail, Johnsen predominantly focuses on providing a snapshot of his time under probation, wherein the confrontational ingredients of his art face the ultimate test. If not a daring experiment of self-expression like Jafar Panahi’s “This Is Not a Film,” the Iranian director’s canny diary project made during his time under house arrest, “The Fake Case” also finds a prominent voice battling to hang onto his freedom: Having once strolled regularly in the park near his home, he now walks in a nearby parking lot where he can tell when he’s being followed, and the fears aren’t unfounded; at one point, he gathers the cigarette butts left by agents on his tail and turns them into an art project. At home, he installs a 24 hour webcam to flaunt the degree to which his life has become increasingly public.
Though his participation in the project illustrates his commitment to transparency, Ai seems less enthused by the attention placed on him than its potential to impact others. In conversation with an increasingly desperate group of lawyers, he insists on fighting restrictions on his life in the hopes that it will prevent the government from directing similar campaigns against his peers. While human rights issues course through his output, he resists being categorized in purely ideological terms. “I’m not a political artist,” he says. “I’m just political.”
That assertion comes through more in his filmmaking than the films about him. “Stay Home!” is a noticeably subdued production in contrast to the blatant flag-waving found in his other media works. At its center is Ximei, an ebullient young woman orphaned at an early age who spends her days living in a Chinese hostel and complaining about the limitations of her healthcare. Ai goes great lengths to establish the rhythms of Ximei’s seemingly ordinary life so that she never takes on symbolic value, rooting the socioeconomic problem in personal experience. A full six minutes unfold before the title card comes up, and even then it’s not yet clear that Ximei suffers from a life-threatening illness; the full extent of her tragic story is only revealed in the credits.
Gradually, it becomes clear that Ximei leads an oppressed existence. Like Ai, she’s stalked by the government at every corner, which only pushes her to complain louder, as she petitions the government for more affordable treatment and complains about the physical efforts she must invest in receiving it. She constantly talks through the ramifications of her actions with a genial resolve, much as Ai does in the documentaries about him. “They can’t find a way to control me because there is none!” she says with her ever-present smile.
While not a prominent artist, she takes a like-minded stand for the prospects of publicizing her plight. At the Center for Disease Control, officials attempt to block the camera following her. “I like it,” she insists, which prompts a thinly veiled threat: “What if you’re ostracized?”
That two-way dialogue between official and citizen complicates the equation by humanizing the people responsible for Ximei’s challenges. While Ai talks about the government’s impact on him as if it were an invisible menace, in “Stay Home!” Ai finds a human element in the authorities through a jovial middleman who’s tasked with tracking Ximei’s every move. He insists it’s a more complicated picture. “The government isn’t impotent,” he says, claiming that his job is to present Ximei’s needs to the authorities so they can provide for her. Ximei openly ribs her overseer for his ineffectual role in her life. “Film it!” she blurts out after teasing him for the camera. “It’s the government’s image.”
That assertion results in a more sophisticated portrait than anything visible from Ai’s privilege spot in his studio, the main set piece for both “Never Sorry” and “The Fake Case.” Ximei’s rambunctiousness also leads her pontificate on how new generations will deal with the same challenges, echoing Ai’s thoughts in “The Fake Case” about the burgeoning resistance to bureaucratic control among children of the eighties. In “Stay Home!,” it’s as if he’s speaking through her — the ultimate illustration of Ai’s activism come to life.
Both “The Fake Case” and “Stay Home!” end in song, though “The Fake Case” uses music to further the spectacle of its subject and Ai applies the device as a means of digging deeper into the life of his character. “The Fake Case” concludes with the absurdist image of Ai taking a shower (a visual he offers up to a needy reporter eager to land an exclusive interview) set to a brassy version of “You Know How I Feel.” In the climactic moments of “Stay Home!,” Ai tracks his subject as she wanders through a lush forest, while the sounds of her Christian friends chanting a prayer for her survival underscores the tension between her state of isolation and the thread of hope that keeps her going.
It’s a remarkable juxtaposition with the way documentarians tend to frame Ai: While the conclusion of “The Fake Case” embodies the playful quality of Ai’s approach to his conundrum, the artist’s depiction of a far more troubled victim of the system has a delicacy that shrewdly embodies the paradoxes of contemporary Chinese society. As much as Ai makes an enticing figure of individual revolt against institutional persecution, he’s even better at finding it elsewhere.
“Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case”: B
“Stay Home!”: A-
HOW WILL THEY PLAY? “The Fake Case” should land a fair amount of festival play due to Ai’s elevated profile, but the recent release of “Never Sorry” may keep it from receiving a similarly major theatrical release, though it could find a welcome home in digital markets and television. “Stay Home!” faces a harder time gaining exposure, only poised to receive further attention if the wider documentary festival circuit makes an effort to keep it out there.