The photo on Ai Weiwei’s Wikipedia page is reverent. Luminous against a stony backdrop, he looks stoic, resilient. It’s an image fitting of a lone artist taking on the Chinese government, the sort that would win the praise of Ai’s media following and fans.
It would also make a great cover for a film. But that’s not the story Andreas Johnsen tells in his new documentary, Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case. In the film, Johnsen takes no pains to glorify Ai Weiwei. His goals were to spend as many hours with Ai as possible and to depict the artist’s vision of China. Johnsen never sits the family down for a heart-wrenching interview. He doesn’t propel Ai’s actions with music or effects.
The result is turbulent with shaky frames and choppy cuts. It isn’t dazzling or beautiful. And at times, life under house arrest can feel a little less daring than it sounds on paper.
For someone who has become an international leader of dissidence in China, Ai doesn’t spend much energy rallying his troops. Though he claims he could start a revolution with one month of radio time, you wouldn’t know it by his conversations with friends and journalists.
It’s not that Ai is weak or apathetic. As his mother often warns, his statements against the government walk a dangerous line. Ai’s unofficial house arrest and faithful tales substantiate her ominous claim that the government of her time would have killed him by now.
Ai Weiwei's actions are heroic. The problem is that Ai refuses to carry himself as a hero. He’s caught sleeping on camera more often than his three-year-old son. He makes offensive jokes and applauds his own power. At one point while Johnsen films him being photographed for an art exhibit, he feels the need to start taking selfies (because having a moment documented through two mediums just isn’t enough). The picture isn’t a particularly inspiring one, but for Johnsen’s purposes it’s successful.
Johnsen depicts the artist as he wants to be seen: completely. Ai has no desire to be filmed standing somberly next to his artwork, as another journalist requests. Instead he suggests that they do filming in his shower. The journalist balks. He protests that this will be airing on a family program. Nude images would be entirely inappropriate.
I got the sense throughout The Fake Case that Ai allowed Johnsen to film his life because the director was willing to do the shower scenes (in fact, one is included in the rolling credits). They have a mutual fondness for minor obscenities.
There’s a scene near the beginning of the film in which Ai discusses his plans for the future of China with an artist. Another director might have cut before Ai fell asleep in the middle of the conversation. Ai would have looked daring whispering about an impending rebellion. The audience would have gone on admiring him. Johnsen could have made a film that satisfied everyone. But he chooses not to cut. Instead, we’re forced to watch the ignoble reality as Ai’s friend snaps photos of the artist sleeping. And we have to stomach it as the hero awakes, sees everything, and goes back to sleep unperturbed.
Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case
Northwest Film Forum
June 27 - July 3