Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has had a lot of exposure in the world of international documentary recently. Just over a year after the release of Alison Klayman’s critically acclaimed documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012) comes a brand new offering by Danish filmmaker Andreas Johnsen in the form of Ai Weiwei – The Fake Case.
Picking up Ai Weiwei’s story after his release from what the artist describes as a ‘state-sponsored kidnapping’, which involved a three month stint in state a detention facility and subsequent charges of ‘tax evasion’ being filed against Ai Weiwei’s company, the most striking thing about Johnsen’s film is it’s noticably similar observational style to Klayman’s documentary. Indeed, having seen Klayman’s film, I struggle to view Johnsen’s latest offering as a stand-alone feature; there is something profoundly sequel-esque about it. Indeed, it kind of feels like another chapter in an ongoing Ai Weiwei franchise framed by Western filmmakers.
The fact that Johnsen fails to provide a real introduction to who Ai Weiwei is as an artist, why he is so important and, most crucially, why he is so feared by the Chinese government, suggests that the director just presumes that any audience that chooses to watch his film is aware of Ai Weiwei and that, consequently, they have likely seen Klayman’s film that came before.
Nevertheless, to Johnsen’s credit, The Fake Case is an intimate, amusing and, importantly, an enjoyable exploration of Ai Weiwei’s life, albeit with dark undercurrents. The artist is clearly suffering from the impact of his time in prison, he is noticably fatigued and troubled, speaking of struggling to sleep, strange dreams, as well as problems with his concentration and memory.
Over the course of the film we see Ai Weiwei oscillate – from an exhuausted, cowed figure returning from prison, refusing to speak to the press in order to avoid the withdrawal of his bail, returning to the confident, characteristically brazen, outspoken political artist so lauded by the world – and back again. It’s difficult to follow exactly what’s going on in Ai Weiwei’s head, but it’s clear that his war with the power that be is proving to be a substantial challenge.
In the short Q&A session, which followed the IDFA world premiere, Johnsen stated that he hoped his film would put more pressure on the Chinese government to stop their illegal harassment of Ai Weiwei. I think that is ambitious. Johnsen’s film is clearly a must-see for any fans of Ai Weiwei, and anyone who is interested in learning about the censorship and state-sponsored intimidation of those who dare to confront the power of the government. On that front, it could be argued that the film presents some quite profound revelations – Ai Weiwei reveals in stark simplicity the shocking facts of his incarcerarion.
Yet ultimately (unlike Klayman’s film) Ai Weiwei – The Fake Case, fails to really bring anything new to the table. It’s a good watch, but somewhat lacking in narrative meat. Perhaps the next Western filmmaker who decides to pick up the franchise will find that there is more of a story to tell next time around.
If you are attending IDFA then please take a look here for screening dates and times.