“If it was 1957, they would have killed you already,” Ai Weiwei’s elderly mother pronounces early on in the chilling new documentary, “Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case,” when he asks her about the differences between his 81 day detention and that which his father endured (one of China’s most famous poets) during the Communist Anti-Rightist Campaign. Almost everyone in the documentary by Danish director Andreas Johnsen, it seems, is more concerned with his fate, than he is. Filmed after Weiwei’s release by Chinese authorities in 2011, and while he was still under house arrest (he is only allowed to leave if he alerts the authorities, and even then he is followed) it’s clear that his fate weighs heavily on him throughout. But, during even the most mundane moments of the film, the documentary does a fantastic job of elucidating his continued bravery and sense of defiance, in spite of it.
Is Ai Weiwei the first artist to become a star through social media, an Andy Warhol for the Twitter age? This documentary truly gives one a sense of the awe-inspiring level of support Weiwei has leveraged, especially in China. Outside of Picasso, Dali, and Warhol, it’s hard to think of an artist (at least without going all the way back to the Renaissance) with more popular notoriety. The most recent of these, Warhol, used his limelight to project a total sense of vacuousness. Weiwei, on the other hand uses his notoriety, “influence,” he calls it, to attempt to effect change in the government, even declaring that he is not a political artist, “just political.” One of his friend’s has doubts about how effective he can be however, questioning if he can “incite subversion of state power by being influential.” Subversion of state power, we already have learned, is the real reason the authorities gave Weiwei for his detention, not tax evasion which he was later charged with. In one amazing scene, his assistants count piles of loose bills that have been mailed in to him by regular Chinese citizens, some even flown over the walls of his compound as paper airplanes with notes of support scrawled on them, ($1.5 million in total) to cover the extortionate bond he must pay to the government to fight the charges against him.
Most of all, the documentary paints the picture of Ai Weiwei as an extraordinarily complex figure. During the most quotidian moments, he comes off as a reserved, doting family man; during interviews both with the directors and foreign journalists (flaunting the restrictions of his bail) he comes off as a humble, deeply moral artist; during discussions with friends and colleagues he shows an acute awareness of his power. In one scene, near the end of the film, after a policeman assaults one of his assistants, we get a harrowing glimpse of the fury he is capable of. Seeing this physical manifestation of his anger against the Chinese government, we are even better able to appreciate his ability to channel it, more effectively, into works of art, and perhaps more importantly, an uncompromising life that has inspired millions across China and the world.
What should one take from the film? One could read it as a purely Chinese story that we are lucky to be absent from, or take its message more personally–as a call for our own artists to retreat from the vogue of abstract art that has long stopped functioning as a propaganda of freedom, and instead move into the realm of the political. Surely, if they stop being enthralled by the record art auction prices, our artists could see that, in this country, we have our own fight against surveillance and other attacks to our freedom that needs waging.
Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case opens May 16 at the IFC Center