Maybe you’ve never heard of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, but he’s a fascinating post-post-post-post-post modern figure, and the unique nature of this 57 year-old’s art is almost as interesting as his relationship with his homeland’s government: although he helped design the Beijing Stadium that was used to host the 2008 Olympics, he was detained for 81 days three years later, following his comments about the catastrophic earthquake that killed so many people in the Sichuan province of his country. If you’re ignorant about the man, Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case will be a bit of an education, as it follows the man during his probation period.
Starting off with the provocative Picasso quote in which Pablo said that painting is an instrument of war, this documentary soon shows us Ai Weiwei as he refuses interviews and tells various reporters that he is not at liberty to respond to any questions; one of the conditions of his freedom is that he stay silent. Immediately after this, we’re with Weiwei as he plays with his young son. This is the nature of AW:TFC, a constant rotation between the public and private aspects of its subject.
Some of the story is told through text, like the one that informs us that his art company, Fake Ltd., has been charged with tax evasion to the tune of $2.5 Million. The bulk of the picture, however, is simple on-the-scene footage recorded as Weiwei lives his day-to-day life. We see him snoring on a couch, drinking tea, or playing with his son. We see his own mother warn him about the government’s response, “some of your words are really harsh. You criticize them too much. If this was 1957, they would have killed you already.”
The greatest strength of this film is that its subject has ample opportunity to speak for himself. More than opportunity, he has plenty of cause : Ai Weiwei has become a more prominent public figure because of his arrest. The memories of his detention still haunt him. And the legal matters the government has brought against him are ongoing. Weiwei’s plight is quite compelling.
The problem is that this naturalistic approach doesn’t give enough background to an uninformed audience member. When did Weiwei start making art, when was his first exhibition, and what his first major artwork? Who knows – no one talks about it and the filmmakers don’t tell us. We don’t even see all that much of the man’s work, nor are given any kind of timeline for when he started to publicize himself so intensely.
At the same time, it’s not altogether bad that the film has such a singular focus. Over an hour and a half, you get a sense for the aftermath of this artist’s imprisonment, and you’re distinctly aware that the government will keep chasing him with spurious charges and lawsuits. I just wish that the ample time devoted to his everyday life were also used to let some people explain their interest in Weiwei’s work, or to provide more details about his past.
Perhaps I want more because Ai’s predicament is so intriguing. In conversation with a friend, he says “I am not a political artist. I am just political” – yet his actions don’t always really jibe with that. Yet another time, we see him race off a phone call from a reporter, saying that he can’t speak. His prior confinement and ongoing state surveillance have made him obsessed with pursuing his pursuers. He used to walk around a park for his health, but now he walks around a parking lot to see if anyone is following him.
It’s also worth noting that there are at least a couple of interesting discussions that this documentary raised for me. Firstly, Weiwei incorporates himself so fully into his work, it makes one wonder how much of his life is being taken over by a sort of ongoing performance art. It’s easy to understand the idea behind him adding four webcams to his home: he can show the government that he’s not up to anything (and, maybe it’s just me, but his loved ones will be immediately notified if he’s taken away again). So what is the dividing line between this artist’s art and his life? Where does one end and the other begin?
Secondly, is Ai Weiwei an attention-hungry megalomaniac? At various times, he talks about bringing the whole governmental system down – sometimes he makes it sound like it’ll be the act of the next generation, but other times, he speaks as if he’ll do it all by himself. At one point, he says that the government prosecution is making him “a god.” And, over and over, his work is intensely, overwhelmingly self-centered – his art always includes images of him naked, or eating, or using the toilet – but we’re never exposed to his artistic theories, or the thesis behind any of his pieces.
But I’m very glad that the movie can provoke this much thought in the first place, and I must admit that Weiwei never asked to be persecuted – and that the persecution itself does make him important. We see his fellow artists debate with him, and we see their nervousness when he asks them to help with his work. We also see a UK journalist try to scam/sweet-talk the man into violating his probation by giving an interview; this British reporter betrays some very funny double-standards, and a dumb self-protectiveness, considering what he’s asking of the other man. Further still, this restricted artist sees other people make art for and/or about him; Ai Weiwei might be limited in what he can say, but he still influences other people, profoundly.
BOND/360 has made Ai Weiwei The Fake Case available to rent or purchase on ITunes, and a deluxe edition to download/stream is available through the official website (or just use this direct link). I may have some issues with elements that I wanted to see included here, but Danish director Andreas Johnsen has produced a strong work – what’s more, he filmed it quite beautifully (it’s a gorgeous doc). It’s easy to understand why it won Best 2014 Documentary at the Danish Film Critics’ Association’s Bodil Awards. In the end, I think that this documentary is terribly interesting and that anyone with an interest in art, human rights, or China should check it out.