Ai Weiwei, the world’s most famous Chinese artist, has always chosen the struggle for human rights over a life of privilege, a choice that has consequences when you live in China. In April 2011 he was suddenly kidnapped by the Chinese authorities and held in in isolation at a secret location, denied all contact with the outside world and refused access to a lawyer. When he was released it was only to a year of house arrest under constant surveillance, his every move monitored by the state. Should he continue to risk his life for the Chinese people or keep his mouth shut?
‘Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case‘ follows Ai Weiwei right after his release. He is grounded in his house in Beijing, on probation and subjected to tight surveillance and restrictions by the Chinese authorities. He is hit with a lawsuit, which he soon names ‘The Fake Case’, referring to the obvious false reasons behind the accusations, and referencing in a clever double entendre, the name of his company.
After his release Ai Weiwei is shaken, marked by the pressure, his detention and the state’s Kafka-like opacity. But slowly he regains his strength and courage, ready to face his opponents even though their powers are mighty. He spends time with his young son, talks about the dark past with his mother, and secretly creates a stunning piece of art depicting his time in detention, always blending his life and art with politics. Responding to the lawsuit, ordinary Chinese citizens spontaneously send him money with personal notes urging him to keep up the fight. Ai Weiwei’s firm belief that China is about to change is refueled. And he will fight to make it happen.
Andreas Johnsen, the film’s Denmark-based director, spoke with David Teich via Skype about courage, stubbornness, and and what it means to be a role model in China.
What does Ai Weiwei represent in China?
He’s a role model for a lot of young people. And he has a very big following online and on all the social media in China. He’s not really known as an artist, like he is outside of China. He’s known for his activism and for his constant commenting online. And because he has this big following, especially among young people, the Chinese government is afraid he’ll become a leader in changing things.
How is it that Weiwei has managed to reach so many people, and why is the government so afraid of him?
The government desperately tries to control the Internet, but they can’t, and that scares them. They use a lot of manpower and a lot of technology to try to censor it, but it’s actually very easy to get a free Internet in China if you know how to do it. Weiwei has never said that he wants to start a revolution, he’s never said that he wants to overthrow the regime or take down the Communist Party. He just wants them to follow the laws the same as everybody else.
When did you first become interested in Ai Weiwei’s story?
I first heard about him in 2008, in connection to what he was doing with the Sichuan earthquake. He had hundreds of volunteers that were helping him, interviewing everyone in the area and finding out which students died, their names, their date of birth, which school they went to. He also he had a few big pieces in Kassel, [Germany] at documenta, which is a big art [exhibition] in Germany. And he was commenting on the [Chinese] milk powder scandal, which was also in 2008. I was reading all these interviews with him in different media, because he was both doing art and being very activistic. And for a long time I had wanted to do a project about how Chinese society had developed over the last ten, fifteen years or so. Weiwei was touching upon so many different subjects, and in such diverse and visual ways—I knew it was perfect for a film.
How did you initially get in touch with Ai Weiwei, and was he interested in working with you from the beginning?
I called up a friend of mine who was a correspondent in Beijing for a Danish newspaper, and he gave me [Ai Weiwei’s] private mobile number. So then I called him up, and I introduced myself. He wasn’t impolite, but at the time he was very negative about the idea of working with me. He was like, “Well, there are so many people who want to make films with me, and I really don’t have the time.” And I tried to explain to him, “The way I work, I’m not going to take any of your time. I just want to be there and experience whatever you experience. I will take care of myself, and you don’t have to take responsibility for me. I will manage everything myself.” But he was still very negative…Finally there was a guy I know who has a gallery in here in Denmark, and he was representing Wewei. I asked him if he could bring some stuff to Weiwei from me the next time he saw him. I made a really nice package, a handwritten letter, I included DVDs of my previous works, and I said to Weiwei, “If you don’t have time to watch them all, just watch the film I made from Nicaragua [“Murder”], because it’s a very political film about women’s rights and [Nicaragua’s] abortion law.” And he watched the first five minutes of it, and then he said to his personal assistant, “Call Andreas and tell him he can come anytime.”
What was your relationship with him like? Did you interact with him a lot, or did you mostly hang back and film him?
We interacted a lot. I really felt that he welcomed me into his family. I was playing with his son, hanging out with the mother of his son. He welcomed me into basically everything he was doing. I was at his house, at his girlfriend’s apartment. Most of the time I stayed at his place. Of course, when there were a lot of police and security and secret agents around, I couldn’t stay at his house. But then I just stayed nearby. I felt really welcome, and we have quite a close relationship. He knows a lot about me, and I know a lot about him.
With a lot of politically themed documentaries, you just see a lot of talking heads spouting off about political issues. But this film is really more about observing Weiwei’s life. Can you talk about your approach to making the film?
In the beginning I was desperate to hear his enemy, the other side of the story—to interview some of the leaders of the Communist Party, or the leader of the Ministry of Public Security, or even just some of the guys that were on a stakeout in front of his house. But of course that was impossible, because I was there as a tourist, so I wasn’t even allowed to be filming. But then it started to become obvious to me that the film was probably even stronger without showing the other side. There’s just this enemy—you barely see them in the film. It’s very spooky. One of their strongest weapons is that they keep you in uncertainty. You never know when they will show up, what they’re going to do, what they are thinking, what they are planning, and why they do what they do. It’s completely absurd and Kafka-esque. To have this pressure on you all the time, it must be terrible psychologically. As for talking heads and interviews and all that, that’s really not my style. I always try to make audiences feel as if they’re experiencing the events in my films as they watch them. And that’s what I want here: I want audiences to feel like the film is present.
You say you weren’t actually allowed to be filming. What kind of difficulties did that create?
Most of the time it was impossible to film in public, because the [security forces] were following us, and I couldn’t show that I had a camera. It was quite difficult and very stressful. And being together with Weiwei, and feeling the stress that he was feeling, made me more stressed out. I just tried to block it out when I was there. But then every time I came home I physically collapsed. I was devastated for like a week after each trip, because I’d been under so much pressure.
Why was the content of this documentary so important to you that you were willing to subject yourself to so much stress?
I think I’m quite stubborn. If I have an idea and I start a project, I always try to get to the end of it. And when I have all these obstacles along the way, I constantly want to prove myself. And I always felt that it was very important to tell this story. I felt responsibility towards Weiwei, since he had given me this opportunity. And I know this film is going to mean a lot to him and to other people in China—young people and other activists who are in the same situation as Weiwei.
Will people in China, especially young people, find ways to access the film?
Well I’ve talked to Weiwei about launching it somehow, and having some kind of premiere there. If we can’t do that, we’ll just spread it online. And maybe I shouldn’t say this, because I’m very happy that the film is having a [digital] release, but I know for a fact that it’s already [illegally] out online in China. That’s how the Internet works, and I’m very grateful for that. Even though it’s illegal, whatever, I’m happy that they’re getting it already.
What drives Weiwei to take risks—talking to journalists, writing online posts, etc.—even now, when he’s at risk of being
imprisoned again if he angers the government?
His father was in kind of the same situation as him. He was a famous poet, and a close friend to Mao. And then in in 1957 or 1958, Mao turned his back on him—he was trying to punish all the intellectuals. Weiwei was one year old, and his whole family was sent away to Northeast China. His father was punished and had to do self-critique every day, and was beaten, and tried to commit suicide a few times. After growing up with this, I think it was kind of Weiwei’s destiny to try whatever little he could do to change things for the better for the next generation. Now that he has a son, it’s more risky. But on the other hand, maybe it’s also more exciting: He wants China to be fair and free, and now he has more reason to [work for that].
Could this documentary get him in trouble?
I think this could go two ways. The government could feel so provoked by this film film that they could punish him in some way, or put more restrictions on him. Or the film could give more attention to his case, and create some political debate and put pressure on China from the outside world. Of course that’s what I’m hoping for, and probably what Weiwei’s hoping for. And I made sure that he saw the final version before it was publicly shown anywhere, and he really liked the film. So I’m nervous, but he’s willing to take the risk.
Did Weiwei ever try to exercise editorial control over the documentary’s content?
After a few trips, Weiwei said to me, “I will respect whatever you do with this, and it’s your film—I will not interfere with it. You can film whatever you want, and you can edit the film as you want. You can portray me as you want.” He actually said, “Even if you make a very critical film about me, I will respect it, because I respect you as an artist.”
There’s a scene in the film where a British TV journalist repeatedly asks Weiwei for an interview, and when Weiwei instead suggests that the journalist film something more intimate and personal—namely, a video of him showering—the journalist declines, citing British censorship laws. In general, what did you think of the way that foreign journalists treated Weiwei following his release from prison?
I think sometimes the western media try to simplify things a lot. And they’ll find just one scapegoat for things—like, “Ooh, it’s the bad Communist Party’s fault.” So they take some quote against the Communist Party from Weiwei or another person in China, and they don’t try to paint a broader picture. That’s why I included the scene with the British TV journalist, where he keeps begging Weiwei for a TV interview. It’s so embarrassing and pathetic. And then Weiwei offers him what I would call it piece of performance art, and he would give it to him exclusively. And then the guy says no. He’s actually putting censorship on us—the western world, the western media. He says he can’t show that, but of course he can. If he had balls, he would put it on YouTube, or wherever, if he couldn’t show it at his stupid TV station in the U.K. Fuck that, just put it up anywhere. Help Weiwei. I was so embarrassed by that. That reflects very negatively on the western world.
And then you closed the film on a scene of Weiwei showering.
[Laughs.] I had to.
Journalists were vultures when Weiwei was released. They wanted their interviews, no matter how much trouble they might get him in. They didn’t seem to care about what he was going through.
Exactly. It came from the art world, and it came from the media. They were just coming at him because he was famous. And they smelled money. It was so disgusting.
How do you hope the film will be received, both in the West and in China?
We make documentary films to create debate, to tell people about situations that they don’t have access to, to inspire people. That’s what I wanted to do, both in China and the West. In China, I would really love for the authorities to see the film and realize how absurd it is that they’re trying to hold a man like Weiwei down.
— Interview conducted, transcribed and edited by David Teich