Within China, the authorities can position the arrest and subsequent censoring of artist-turned-folk hero Ai Weiwei any way they please. Abroad, however, Ai’s supporters have been treated to a much more candid version of events through his conceptual art exports, by following his social-media use and via documentaries that offer his side of the story. Danish director Andreas Johnsen’s “Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case” picks up where Alison Klayman’s “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” left off, serving as not just an update, but an even more galvanizing call for reform, destined to be heard on festival and arthouse screens worldwide.
In “Never Sorry” Klayman had the far more difficult job of juggling Ai’s international significance as an artist with his mounting legal problems at home in China, not to mention the challenge of convincing her subject (who had made half a dozen documentaries of his own) to let her chronicle his inner world. Ai was once again reluctant to become the subject of a film, but granted Johnsen access on the strength of his politically charged pic “Murder,” about problems surrounding Nicaragua’s anti-abortion policies.
Johnsen enters the picture shortly after the artist is released from more than 80 days’ confinement. Rather than re-educating audiences about Ai’s legacy and recent run-ins with the Chinese government, he allows a stock news story (which Ai watches on the Internet) to fill in the key details to date. It’s a convenient crutch in a film that favors an observational verite style over narration and structure, and yet, viewers unfamiliar with Ai’s story may find things more than a little confusing and would be well advised to watch “Never Sorry” first, even though the two docs were created entirely independently of one another.
Set during Ai’s yearlong period under house arrest, “The Fake Case” takes place mostly behind the walls of his artistic headquarters at 258 Fake in Caochangdi, a walled compound overrun by cats where Ai holds court with foreign journalists and entertains visitors (one of whom, a nude model who posed for his scandalous “One Tiger Eight Breasts” photograph, drops by to see Ai during the course of the film).
Though English speakers may leap to a literal interpretation, “Fake” carries multiple meanings to Chinese speakers, ranging from a pun on the communist virtue of “scientific development” to a transliteration of the way locals might pronounce the word “fuck” (as two separate syllables: “fa ke”). For the sake of the film, the English meaning — “not real” or “counterfeit” — nicely serves Ai’s situation, since he emerged from prison facing a trumped-up charge of tax evasion.
Although Ai has been forbidden from exhibiting his work in China, he carries on making new pieces for exhibition abroad. The film observes as Ai alternates between the daily setbacks of life under constant police surveillance and the ongoing creative impulse, including the preparation of “S.A.C.R.E.D.,” a massive sculptural project consisting of six boxes representing aspects of his confinement. At one point, he catches the men sent to spy on him, steals their ashtray and repurposes it as a work of art — perhaps the clearest sign that Ai has become the subject of his own art, and a compelling reason for such a behind-the-scenes documentary to exist.
But Ai’s career as artist is swiftly becoming secondary to his role as a popular figure capable of galvanizing China’s younger generation toward reform and perhaps even revolution. Though his bogus arrest was clearly intended to squelch his growing influence, it appears to have had the opposite effect, as demonstrated in the doc’s most affecting sequence. Faced with a fine of nearly $1.5 million, Ai is astonished by the public’s support of his cause, as demonstrated by little pink paper airplanes sent over the walls of his studio (each one a 100-yuan note neatly folded and offered in solidarity), along with a flood of anonymous letters that arrive bearing donations.
Between his design of the Beijing National Stadium and the millions of hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds he exhibited at the Tate Modern, Ai Weiwei had already established himself as a major international figure. “The Fake Case” finds him physically transformed — the big belly diminished, his beard longer than before — and yet more determined than ever to challenge the fraudulent system in power. As he puts it, “If I don’t share my voice, if I don’t act as I believe, then I am dead already.” With the aid of Johnsen’s doc to overcome the obstacles China has put in his path, however, Ai’s voice carries louder than ever before.