Chinese artist Ai Weiwei once described the act of censorship as ‘having the last sentence […] whatever you say the conclusion is theirs’; and as an individual who has spent most of his professional career using his status and influence to internally criticise the Chinese government’s notoriously draconian limitations on information, his art and internet presence have provided a much needed reflection of the inconsistencies of Chinese government policy.
While Ai Weiwei’s corrosively political art and social media activism was once partially protected under his high – profile status in the international art scene, his recent imprisonment by the Chinese authorities for 81 days sent shockwaves across the world: a clear message from the Chinese government that even fame and connectivity cannot protect dissidence. If Alison Klayman’s celebratory documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Say Sorry (2012) was a celebration of Weiwei’s ideals, art and politics, Andreas Johnsen’s Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case (2014) is a far darker meditation on government oppression and a retaliatory statement for the importance of free speech.
The immediate element of Johnsen’s artistic direction is a calmer observational style, shot almost entirely within Ai Weiwei’s properties, simulating the house arrest the Chinese authorities have put him under which forbid him from social media, interviews with western press and leaving his own property without permission. Clearly suffering the after effects of his incarceration and in the midst of a dubious case for ‘tax evasion’ against company Fake Ltd, the film explores Weiwei’s new perspectives in brooding interviews that exude a hesitancy previously never seen in the artist, with observational footage of interactions with his mother and young son, exploring what is at potentially at stake if he continues to openly defy state power.
Yet Weiwei is more than the sum of his art projects and despite creating an exhibition reflecting on his time in imprisonment, scenes showing the monetary support from ordinary Chinese citizens, with envelopes streaming across his garden wall, demonstrate the solidarity of resistance he has created in his own country, re – enforcing the exact reason why he was imprisoned in the first place. As a film thats status is defined by its own exclusivity (with a interview led bio – doc on Weiwei in a context of Western media embargos rendering it hot property to festival programmers) its focus is primarily an emotional document of the present circumstances of Weiwei’s situation and psyche, which powerful as they may be, may not resonate completely with viewers loosely accustomed to the complex legacy of the artist. Yet despite this Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case is both intimate and expansive, observing a broken political martyr finding his feet again, through the connectivity he has fostered with both ordinary Chinese he represents and Western medias interest in his confrontational relationship with the Chinese government.
With an emotional arc that traverses from apathy to activism, from the evidence it appears that Weiwei is far from being silenced, taking instruments of his own oppression – self-installed ‘big brother’ style 24hr webcams and cigarette bugs left behind by secret police – and re- appropriating them into ‘art’ with anarchic glee. With Johnsen’s documentary being a signature middle finger to Chinese authority because of its sheer existence alone, it’s impossible to predict what will happen next and what trajectory Weiwei’s career will take with government limitations. Yet whatever the outcome may be, this is an important film undoubtedly deserves your attention.
Director: Andreas Johnsen
Writer: Andreas Johnsen
Stars: Weiwei Ai, Andreas Johnsen, Lao Ai
Runtime: 86 min
Country: Denmark, China, UK