Ai Weiwei’s international prominence increased significantly after Chinese authorities arrested him in the spring of 2011, but Danish filmmaker Andreas Johnsen was already in production on a documentary about the outspoken artist before the arrest—or “kidnapping,” as Ai has described his ordeal.
Johnsen, who would go on to shoot and direct Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case about that incident and its aftermath, has built a filmmaking career out of his love of travel and the exploration of other cultures. He first approached Ai about making a film in 2010, both because of his admiration for Ai’s work and because of Ai’s outspoken criticism of the Chinese government, especially its failures in relation to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the 2008 contaminated powdered milk scandal.
“I thought he would be a great character to make a film about,” Johnsen recalls. “He’s an artist and also an activist. I knew that would be more interesting than trying to film a traditional activist who maybe just sits in front of his computer and tries to mobilize people. I wanted to make a film about what China is like through his eyes.”
Ai Weiwei and director Andreas Johnsen
Those who see The Fake Case will not be surprised to hear that the artist was initially reluctant to participate. Though he has a lot to say, he is generally ill disposed toward journalists and filmmakers looking to use him to achieve their own agenda—particularly because he is under so much government scrutiny that any time he appears on camera or speaks into a microphone, he is taking a serious risk. But when Johnsen sent him a copy of Murder, his challenging documentary about reproductive rights in Nicaragua, Ai agreed to let the filmmaker visit him as a guest and bring along some very low-profile filmmaking gear. Telling only his editor, Adam Nielsen, what he was really up to, Johnsen packed his things and two Canon cameras—an EOS 5D Mk II DSLR and a PowerShot SX100 compact—and visited his newfound friend in China.
It was really only by working with this type of “amateur” camera that Johnsen was able to capture a sense of Ai’s daily life in Beijing. In the film, Ai shares his observations and opinions quite candidly. “I never had any ‘interview,’” Johnsen says. “All the situations are just happening. It’s just a conversation I’m having with him. If I had said, ‘Can I interview you at your house?’ he would have refused.”
Johnsen made several trips and shot some 150 hours of material, up until Ai’s arrest in April of 2011 in a government crackdown on political dissidents. His home, studio and company were raided—the company is called Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., from which the film gets its name; his family and colleagues were detained and questioned.
The Chinese government held Ai for nearly three months. “It was devastating,” Johnsen remembers. “Most importantly because of his situation, of course. And as for the film, I had no idea what I was going to do. Would I ever finish it?”
Director Andreas Johnsen
Ai was released in June 2011, although his movement was severely restricted. He was essentially placed under house arrest and subject to intense government surveillance. He was not allowed to speak to the media or post online. (Ai was and is quite active on Twitter, @aiww.)
Johnsen returned to China as soon as he could, not sure what Ai’s position was on continuing the work. But he soon got word that Ai was eager to continue. Given the compelling new storyline and his subject’s increased international prominence, the filmmaker decided to start from scratch. He didn’t use any of the pre-arrest footage.
In the intervening months, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd. was found guilty of tax evasion and Ai was ordered to pay about $2.4 million. His appeals were unsuccessful.
Over five additional trips, the last one in the spring of 2013, Johnsen shot the footage used in The Fake Case. The rules for shooting the artist were the same as before. Johnsen would spend time with Ai and he could use one of his two small, touristy cameras to discretely shoot whenever he wanted. “I could just use the microphone in the camera,” the documentarian notes.
At one point in the film, we see the two speaking in a restaurant. “We were having dinner right after he came out of prison and I had my camera hidden in my bag—that’s why the angle is kind of funny and the sound is not very good—but it’s the only way I could have gotten the shot. Somewhere in that restaurant there were probably police looking right at us while he was talking.”
The American poster for the film features one of Ai’s S.A.C.R.E.D. dioramas, which depict scenes from his incarceration
Ai makes a point to camera early on, after a frustrating phone conversation with an official, that he makes every effort to respect the individual officials and police officers involved in his situation despite his feelings about the system overall. But as time goes on, Johnsen’s camera catches him chasing after some agents who do a terrible job of shadowing him, and even confronting police. At one point, Ai places webcams throughout his house to let everybody see the same details of his daily life that the government is constantly monitoring. This act is met with strong disapproval by officials, who apparently wish to maintain a monopoly on such intrusive images.
A fascinating moment in The Fake Case occurs during a meeting between the artist and a journalist from ITV. Eager for the first interview with Ai since his release, the zealous correspondent lays out his case. Johnsen, who captured the entire discussion on his 5D for inclusion in The Fake Case, recalls the moment. “He said, ‘I cannot give you an interview, but maybe we can find some way to work around this. Maybe I can give you something else.’ The guy could film him taking a shower. But he refuses! He doesn’t understand he was being offered a piece of performance art. That scene is essential. It’s a critique of us, of the Western world. We criticize China because they sensor the press. But this guy is censoring Weiwei and censoring himself because he wouldn’t agree to film Weiwei just taking a shower like people do every day, everywhere. I later shot that myself and I used a still of him nude for the poster.
“Actually, I made two posters,” he elaborates. “For Europe, I made one where he is totally naked standing in Tiananmen Square. I knew I couldn’t do that for North America so I did a different image of him in a cell with two soldiers. And of course no nudity!”
For more information on the film, visit thefakecase.com, and to view the film on iTunes, visit https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/ai-weiwei-the-fake-case/id900294487.