I’m back writing about Ai Weiwei, which isn’t what I particularly want to be doing, but as he seems to be the only Chinese artist known or cared about by a wider (Western) audience, here we are. This continued, and likely mutually beneficial, publicity for AWW has led to yet another documentary focusing on the trials and tribulations — well, mostly the trials — of him as he continues to work as an artist and professional dissident. Less than two years since the release of Alison Klayman’s comprehensive and engaging Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, filmmaker Andreas Johnsen has decided the time is ripe for the public to be updated on the further adventures of Weiwei beyond his own very active engagement with his fans via Twitter, Instagram, and other virtual platforms.
The product, Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case, has been declared by many to be a documentary sequel (or some awkward portmanteau to that effect), and it does indeed pick up almost exactly where Never Sorry left off, with footage of AWW returning home after his release from prison. The film follows Ai’s attempts to seek answers and justice after his detention in 2011, when he was held for 81 days before being charged with the dubious offense of tax fraud. In order to retain both his good name and hold the Chinese government to its stated standard of judicial proceedings, Ai seeks to prove his innocence even as his lawyers are threatened and abandon his case, he is kept under house arrest and secretly tailed, and his art practice is all but completely shut down.
Those seeking insight into Ai’s current work as an artist will mostly be disappointed: this documentary is much more the chronicle of a censured political activist than the typical artist bio-doc that Never Sorry was. Johnsen expects, and probably rightly so, that the audience will be familiar with Ai’s background — his early life and history, his time in New York, his rise to international fame – and instead focuses solely on AWW’s daily life under house arrest. Johnsen paints the picture of a despondent and frustrated man: Ai seems crushed by boredom and exasperated with his inability to create. While his struggle is undeniably an important aspect of his life, it does make for somewhat monotonous viewing. The audience feels, perhaps by design, as trapped in the doldrums as Weiwei. However, Johnsen fails to convey both the artist’s urgent sense of purpose and creeping fear that dogs him, and so misses the opportunity to shake us out of our complacent stupor and into supportive action.
But one aspect of The Fake Case that feels fresh and stands out is its emphasis on Ai’s family life: his mutually supportive relationship with his mother and his bond and protective feelings toward his son, Ai Lao. Although we met Lao briefly in Never Sorry, Johnsen dedicates much more time to scenes of father and son: splashing in a pool, playing in an amusement park, and meeting neighborhood pets. Johnsen’s focus on this aspect of Ai’s life since arrest underscores not only the danger that looms over all of those standing by him, but also the uncertain future of Lao and his contemporaries who have been directly affected by oppression. The portrait of Ai Weiwei as a father is an unexpected one, and throws into sharper relief the personal sacrifices he faces by continuing to antagonize the government.
Although not an especially gripping film, especially because the chronicle of events from two and three years ago already seems woefully behind the times, fresh developments in Ai’s case and work are being seen and discussed in real time, so there are possible benefits to this seemingly unnecessary sequel. If The Fake Case is able to bring more light to not only Ai’s plight but those of other Chinese artists and their supporters who have been attacked, then it just might be worth the retread. Johnsen hopes to have secret screenings of the film in China if he is able to reenter the country, and Ai Weiwei, defiant as ever, has volunteered to host them. The Beijing crowd should listen for whisperings about that in the near future.
Hilary Chassé is a Brooklyn-based writer and archivist with a Masters in Chinese Art History. Follow her @chasseh