In April 2011, Ai Weiwei — the Chinese artist who helped design the Beijing “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium and who filled London’s Tate Modern with 8 million sunflower seeds — was arrested by authorities in his home country. They held him in detention for nearly three months on what later turned out to be tax fraud charges. After that, they placed their most prominent artist on house arrest. This is where Danish filmmaker Andreas Johnsen’s documentary The Fake Case starts. The beloved, world-renowned creator is leaving the very grip of the authorities’ intimidation chamber, and he’s rattled — not talking to international press, keeping quiet. Something’s wrong.
Although the title of the film suggests its focus is on a court case (and it being fabricated by the Chinese government) it’s really about Weiwei as an artist and his metamorphosis into one that is straight-up, gloves-off political. This change isn’t pretty. After his detention, Weiwei can’t sleep, yet he can hardly keep awake. He’ll drift off in the midst of conversation with his friends, and whenever he looks at the camera, his eyes look wracked, like heavy, dark pools. Strangely, this weight in his gaze, while making him look delirious most the time, also grants him a sagely quality. That impression is fortified by his laser-focused anger at officials, and his plans — articles, artwork, court cases — to fight back against the forces that make his life miserable, as well as those of his friends and countrymen.
Johnsen’s access to the artist is extraordinary. He films him in press interviews, in car chases with the government agents that follow Weiwei, with his wife and young son, and even in the shower. Weiwei says often that he has nothing to hide. Those words are directed at his government, but they also show who he is as a creator. He puts himself out there. Throughout the film, we watch Weiwei gradually deal with his political “kidnapping”, digest it and regurgitate it for the purposes of art. In one project, he puts webcams all over his room, so people on the internet can have access to his every moment, waking or sleeping — just like the government. In another, he creates installations that meticulously recreate his months of detention with ultra-life-like sculptures of himself, his room and his two guards. As we watch him hatch these projects, it’s plain to see that he becomes angrier, more determined to pick fights with authorities if he thinks there’s even a chance for victory.
And miracles happen. There’s one incredible moment when the government fines him an absurd amount, like $1.3 million, to appeal his phony fax fraud case, and then, out of nowhere, people make paper airplanes with dollar bills and float them over the wall and into his courtyard. The amount that comes in is staggering. The kind of grass-roots support the artist receives from the people is next to unbelievable. And just as the film is about Weiwei’s development into a political artist, it’s also about the Chinese people, about a new generation of leaders and possibilities. Weiwei says, at one point, that if you gave him a free press for a month, then the entire country would rise up and change. Indeed, Weiwei sees himself — if reluctantly — as an apostle of freedom, of human rights. And Johnsen effectively capture’s him embracing this role. The film leaves you on a hopeful note (Nina Sinmone’s “Feeling Good”) and the possibility that Chinese society will blossom with an internet-rooted revolution, or just implode on itself any day now. Weiwei, in being that apostle, is trying to predict when that day will come.
Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case is playing at the St. Anthony Main Theatre.