Alison Klayman’s excellent 2012 documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry ends on a highly frustrating moment for the viewer. After constructing a thorough and personal introduction to the work and person of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, particularly chronicling his outspokenness against what he sees as mass human rights abuses perpetrated by the Chinese government, Ai quite literally disappears. Kidnapped by authorities, Ai is missing for over a hundred days with no word of his whereabouts, or whether he had even been formally arrested, before unceremoniously being returned to his home where he is placed under house arrest for allegations of tax evasion.
Danish documentarian Andreas Johnsen’s Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case picks up right where Klayman’s documentary left off (to the point of starting with the same footage of Ai returning home from confinement that Klayman ended her film on). Johnsen’s film, rather than continuing to document an overarching view of Ai’s life, is instead focused on one particular aspect: how the artist’s life has changed since his imprisonment, and how that experience has affected his desire to continue protesting through his artworks.
The charges against Ai are tangled and convoluted. The Chinese government accuses Ai’s registered business, Fake Ltd, of owing $2.5 million in taxes. Ai wryly describes the situation as “It’s a fake case. It’s a fake case about a Fake Company. But the Fake Company is a real company. The fake case is a real case, but it’s fake, it’s fabricated.” It doesn’t get any clearer than that. An American friend of Ai’s living in China remarks in frustration at one point that the charges are completely ridiculous: “Accused of tax evasion, no Chinese person would believe it, because nobody in China pays taxes anyway… there’s no such thing as tax evasion”. The charges seem deliberately calibrated to effect Ai’s international reputation, and lessen his credibility as a dissident voice.
Ai is less bothered by the accusations than he is by the way he was treated while he was imprisoned, which basically amounted to torture. He was kept in a small cell where he was often interrogated multiple times a day, and had two guards assigned to watch him at all times, even when he slept – one would loom over his bed while the other would march up and down the cramped space for hours. The experience has left him with shattered sleeping patterns, a faulty memory, physical injuries, and a lingering sense of terror.
However, if you are familiar with Ai Weiwei and his dogged determination and puckish humour, you won’t be surprised that despite this experience he still launches immediately into making critical art that documents what he went through. Although cautious at first, he slowly begins to buck against and defy the strictures placed against him – leaving his house, chasing down officials who are spying on him, having interviews with foreign media, posting work and opinions online. He knows that the attention his situation has drawn worldwide has allowed him a peculiar measure of immunity for the time being, but he is also acutely aware that what happened to him could also happen to anyone who supports him, from his artistic collaborators to his elderly mother. This is a man not in fear for himself, but for everyone he loves, as he is now aware exactly what can happen to those outspoken voices the authorities decide to make ‘disappear.’
This fear for others plays out several times throughout the film, and here we see the real change in Ai. Confronted with a photographic protest mural made by a fellow artist featuring naked people with cut-outs of Ai’s face masking their modesty, he says with real worry in his voice, “I think all these people are very scared.” When a young associate of his is assaulted by police officers outside his home, Ai snaps and runs out into the street screaming obscenities, a furious tornado of rage that his friends struggle to prevent from attacking the officers.
Johnsen’s film is never quite as outwardly slick as Klayman’s earlier effort. It’s operating on a smaller scale, of course, unburdened with having to fully introduce its subject from scratch. It’s rougher around the edges, which is particularly noticeable in scenes where an unseen Johnsen asks Ai questions that are often a bit naïve or hurried, as Johnsen strives to capture reactions to just-occurred incidents. But there is something compelling about how ‘seat-of-your-pants’ it is, and it collates within itself a highly engaging portrait of a man who in no way intends to stop his fight against systematic injustice, but is now constantly, viscerally aware of the very real consequences for such a battle, one that is ongoing, unrelenting, and constantly puts people in danger of being silenced forever. As unofficial sequels go, The Fake Case makes a very good pair with Never Sorry.