Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Andreas Johnsen on ‘Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case’

Photo: Johanna Lenski

Andreas Johnsen
The work of Danish documentary filmmaker Andreas Johnsen has brought him into places a less venturesome person would seek to avoid– the slums of Rio de Janeiro (for his first film “Mr. Catra The Faithful”), the ghettos of Nairobi and Jamaica (for “Curtain Raising” and “Man Woman”), and Sandinista controlled Nicaragua (for “Murder”). For his latest film, he traveled to a country, that at least for those not fighting against the illogics of the government, is rather safe in comparison–China.

Beginning in 2010, Johnsen made seven trips to Beijing to film the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, never one to kowtow to the authorities. Illegally detained by the Chinese government for 81 days in 2011, journalists the world over clamored for an interview with Weiwei upon his release. Johnsen was the only one allowed into his inner circle. The resulting film, “Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case,” chillingly chronicles, in cinematic detail, his daily life under house arrest, as he struggles under the pressure of fighting the charge of tax evasion levied against him, while remaining resolutely brave and defiant.

I spoke with Johnsen while he was in New York City presenting his film at the IFC Center, about how he managed to make the film and gain Weiwei’s trust, the Chinese government’s continued efforts to silence Weiwei, and the common themes that run through his work.

CS: When did you start filming Ai Weiwei? It was before he was detained, right?

AJ: Yes, most definitely. Actually back in 2009, I asked if he was willing to make a film with me. And at the time he said, “It’s not possible. I’m too busy. I don’t have the time.” There were so many people at the time asking him about this and he was refusing everybody. But then, I kept emailing with his studio and calling him, and finally after he saw my film “Murder” he agreed that I could make a film with him. Actually he saw the first five minutes, and he was like, “you can come any time you want.”

CS: So what do you think it was about your documentary “Murder” that changed his mind?

AJ: Well, in the opening scene in that film I’m trying to get these politicians, some leaders of the Sandinista party in Nicaragua to talk about the abortion law and women’s rights. They completely refused to talk to me about this issue and they basically kicked me out of their office. I’m sure that Weiwei somehow could see the Chinese authorities in my film, because they work in the complete same way. They are non-communicative. They don’t want to have a dialogue. So he had a lot of respect for me trying to get them to talk, and that I had actually managed to get into their office, and get them to sit down. And then of course I was kicked out, but just that I was able to get that far. He recognized the same way he is working in China in my film.

CS: What drew you to him as a subject?

AJ: In the beginning it was mostly just China. For maybe four or five years I was interested in doing something in China, trying to get an idea of what Chinese society is like, and usually I do that by making a film somewhere. Getting to know the place, getting to know the people. But I wasn’t necessarily sure if it was going to be a film. But then I started reading interviews with Weiwei, especially in connection with his investigation of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, and I was really fascinated by him… the way he was communicating what he wanted to say politically through his art, and getting it out to people through his artwork. And I thought it would be perfect to make a film with him, instead of like, a regular activist who was just maybe sitting on the computer all day being online and communicating with people in that way. So it was much more visual with Weiwei as an artist and perfect for film. At the time there was no film about him (‘Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” by Alison Klayman has since been released). That’s why I was pretty sure that I had to do something with him.

CS: So why did you decide to make the film only about the period after he was released from detention?

AJ: Well, often when you make documentary films, you have to be very patient, and you film a lot, and you are waiting for something to happen, or for the story to take a certain direction. It can take years before something happens. For me, being there in China, being with Weiwei, was also just research because before visiting Weiwei I had never been in China. So it was very important to be there and just to get to know him and for him to get to know me. We pretty fast became quite close friends, and pretty fast he felt that he could trust me. If I hadn’t been there before his detention, he would never have let me be there when he was released. When his detention, his kidnapping happened, it was pretty clear that this is where the film is going to start, and there was this time frame of twelve months when he was under house arrest and under severe restrictions and the story was like, “is this man going to survive this? What is going to happen? Is he going to come back as his own self, or is he going to be completely beaten?”

CS: For me it’s almost hard to see that. He seems so brave throughout your film. He definitely seems under stress, but he seems so determined and brave throughout it.

AJ: Even in the beginning of the film?

CS: Well I think there is a very short period in the film where he says he’s not going to give any interviews, but very soon after he starts talking to the foreign press. Is that wrong?

AJ: We start talking, but I don’t think he does any interviews for a few months. And then I forgot when it was that he just decides to break all the rules. But the first thing he does is write an article for Newsweek criticizing Beijing and the government, but that’s not an interview as he says, that’s an article.

CS: So he wasn’t restricted from writing articles?

AJ: Not really specifically. But of course he was restricted from communicating with the press and appearing in the press, but they didn’t specify you cannot write an article. That was somehow implied, but it wasn’t specified, so he treated it as a loophole.

CS: Were you scared for him or yourself at anytime during the filming?

AJ: Oh yeah, of course. When you are in the situation it seems like there is no room or mental space for being scared, so maybe worried, and you feel the stress a lot. But you are just like, I’m going to survive this. I’m going to go through this, so you don’t think about it as a scary situation, you are just trying to survive it or get through it.

CS: A good portion of the film focuses on Weiwei preparing for trial with his lawyers, against the charge of tax evasion. What’s the logic behind their judicial system?

AJ: There’s no logic.

CS: In your film it seems like the Chinese authorities just do whatever they want.

AJ: Exactly, and Weiwei is trying to make them follow the law. That’s his main goal. He doesn’t want to overthrow the Communist party. He knows he can’t do that. He just wants them to follow the law for all the citizens. But now it’s so confusing. I think they are doing it on purpose. Keeping him in this uncertainty is their strongest weapon, because it keeps the pressure on him psychologically all the time, every minute.

CS: I don’t think there is any point in the documentary where you actually interview him, which is somewhat unusual. The film unfolds mostly through conversations with his family and friends, and through numerous interviews with foreign journalists, which he is not allowed to give. Is there a specific reason for this?

AJ: I usually never do interviews in my films. Doing an interview is like a tool that you can run to if you are in trouble. If you desperately want the person to talk about something specific that you can’t show in images or actual scenes, you make an interview. It’s so easy, but it’s not really cinematic. And for me it was important to try to make the audience have the experience of being there. When you watch the film I want you to have the feeling that you are experiencing it as it takes place.

CS: What is your perspective on the difference between his fame inside and outside of China?

AJ: It’s very different. I think outside of China the activism and the art are kind of the same, but in China it’s only like his activism. Of course, his dedicated fans know all his artwork, but most of the Chinese people who know him look at him as an activist and they don’t really care about the art, and they don’t really understand how big the art thing is.

CS: There is one point in the documentary were Weiwei says his name is not allowed on Chinese internet. Is that true and when did that happen?

AJ: Hell yeah. That happened before his detention. I don’t remember exactly at what time it was, but it was probably all the way back in 2010 or even before. He started doing really hard-core investigation on the Sichuan earthquake, you know that whole story about the schoolchildren and all that? And that really pissed off the authorities, so I think it goes all the way back to then. So if you type Ai Weiwei in Google or any other search engine in China, nothing comes up, like zero results.

CS: In Chinese and in English?

AJ: Yes, zero. But it’s pretty interesting that also, even his address, as the girl says in the film, if you type his address into Google maps, it doesn’t come up. It’s erased from Google maps.

CS: I’m assuming your film isn’t going to be released in China. Is it being shown secretly there?

AJ: Not yet, but Weiwei and I talked about it, and he made the Chinese subtitles for it, so we want to try to get it out there.

CS: I read in another interview you gave that you consider yourself “not at all a journalist.” You said, “I don’t even know if I’m really even a filmmaker. I don’t have that kind of education to call myself either.” But you’ve made ten films!

AJ: Yeah at least, but I’m not a journalist. I make films, so maybe I’m a filmmaker, but I have no education.

CS: So do you feel like that frees you in a kind of way?

AJ: I never really think about it, it’s just something that I do. Before I was a making films, I was a photographer. I love taking pictures and telling stories through images, and for me it’s very much the same. Of course, a film is more work and it takes more time, but it’s actually the same. That’s also why I made the European poster together with Neil Kellerhouse for the film. Maybe you haven’t seen it because of course it’s illegal, or it’s censored in the States because Weiwei is naked, but I made one poster that summarizes the whole film in one image. It’s Weiwei standing naked in Tiananmen Square.

CS: Is there a certain theme you see throughout your work, or a particular kind of subject that interests you?

AJ: Yes, but it was never intentional. And I only started thinking about it recently when I was doing all these interviews for this film. If you look at my films, they are always about human beings surviving in their society, in their situation, and managing to do what they need to do even under restrictions of some kind. My first film was about this musician in Rio de Janeiro in the favelas, the slums, who now is extremely famous, but back then he was a rapper and not really famous. The law of Brazil, the legislation in Rio, forbid his music because it was commenting on the life in the favelas, and the society in Brazil is trying to hide what goes on in the favelas. It’s like another world within the society, and they don’t want people to know about it, and they just want it to be forgotten. So it was about his music, and him making this music even though it was illegal. When I look at my films, it is always about this theme. I feel very inspired by people who are struggling in making their art or whatever they have to do in life. Same with the film in Nicaragua. The main character in this film is this midwife who performs illegal abortions and saves hundreds of women’s lives and it’s so beautiful what she does, but it’s illegal. It’s so absurd. Same with Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case screens is currently screening in New York City at IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue, New York, NY.

You can read our full review of “Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case,”  here.

More info on all of Andreas Johnsen’s films can be found on the Rosforth website.