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article image'Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case' looks at the human behind the artist Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Apr 29, 2014 in Entertainment
'Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case' is a new documentary tracing the Chinese artist’s life post-incarceration. Its filmmaker says you don’t have to love Ai’s art to appreciate the story of a human being facing incredible odds.
Screened as part of this year’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto, Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case will be shown across North America through 2014. It tells the story of the artist battling the charges of tax evasion following his release from 81 days spent in solitary confinement at the Beijing Capital International Airport in 2010 following trumped-up tax evasion charges. Danish Director Andreas Johnsen uses offers a unique and frequently artistic perspective tracing Ai’s journey from the artist’s release from jail, up to the end of his probation on June 21, 2012.
Johnsen originally got in touch with the artist back in 2009. The artist, wary of multiple filmmaker requests and well accustomed to being watched in every aspect of his life, said no. It was only after Ai viewed a copy of Johnsen’s harrowing 2009 documentary Murder (about anti-abortion laws in Nicaragua) which the Dane had sent to him, that he agreed to be filmed.
“I was trying to explain (the project) on the phone to Weiwei for like, six months,” Johnsen recalls during a stop in Toronto, “but it was when he saw my film Murder that (he realized) ‘Okay, he is kind of like me.’ I was trying to get the politicians in Nicaragua to talk to me, and he saw that they were acting like the politicians in China act — being non-communicative and lying and all this stuff — so he totally related.”
The two are are very much kindred spirits, at least in an artistic sense; both Johnsen and Ai are happy to openly portray and explore unpopular, even occasionally taboo subjects within a larger cultural realm, unconcerned about the judgment (and even punishment) they court through their passionate artistic pursuits. Johnsen encountered much resistance from Nicaraguan authorities during the filming of Murder; such determination inspired respect on Ai’s part, though Johnsen’s position as an agitating artist was entirely accidental.
“i never planned to be a filmmaker,” he says plainly. “I don’t have a career — I don’t even have a job! I just do what I like to do, what I enjoy doing, what I feel is important. I don’t want to waste my time doing something I don’t like, or something that doesn't make sense. I just follow this and try to be true to that… wherever it leads me (is where) I am going.”
Andreas Johnsen  had to be careful filming in China. The director visited Ai Weiwei seven times  for...
Andreas Johnsen had to be careful filming in China. The director visited Ai Weiwei seven times, for ten days each time, between 2010 and 2012. “I would say it was kind of stressful,” he says of his travels, “but I wasn’t afraid. It was very stressful, though.”
Timme Hovind
Johnsen didn’t share or publicly document any details of his trips, but kept everything (footage, experiences, observations) totally private. Such precautions actually yielded better results, says the filmmaker.
“I liked it, actually,” Johnsen says of the secrecy, “it had a much stronger impact when the film was done. So many people never heard about me doing this film. They were so surprised! I like to surprise people.”
What makes The Fake Case so affecting isn’t the access he was granted to a famous artist, but the delicacy he shows toward filming, through elegant, simple cinematography, a beautiful eye for plain, natural light, the pauses he allows in pacing, the careful, conscientious use of close-ups, and the ever-pervasive silence that acts as its own character throughout the work. “It’s much stronger,” he says of the silence,”that's why there’s no music in the film. I only put the Nina Simone song at the end because I had to.”
Indeed, the famous “Feeling Good” that ends the film is in sharp, if affecting, contrast to the rest of the movie, which is, by turns, touching, surprising, funny, and more than a little troubling for the unflinching look at the effect Ai’s incarceration has had on him and his family, to say nothing of the central role it's played in his creation of his disturbing "S.A.C.R.E.D." piece.
Ai Weiwei and son Ai Lao.
Ai Weiwei and son Ai Lao.
International Film Circuit / Andreas Johnson
“That was my goal with the film to show (Ai) as a human being,” Johnsen explains, “not as a superstar artist, or only as this activist, but as a human being. I relate to him on a human level, and I want people to see him as a human being, to be able to relate to him. We all have the feelings that he has, and we can all end up in a similar situation -- maybe not as severe as his, or more severe, but in a similar situation. It happens to maybe all of us in our lifetimes, on some level.”
One of the most moving scenes in the documentary portrays Ai with his mother, chatting about their family’s propensity toward questioning state authority, and its endurance of subsequent punishment. These incidents, Johnsen believes, play a big role in fueling the artist’s defiance.
“His family was expelled from Beijing to the northeastern part of China when he was a year old,” Johnsen explains, “so he felt this on his body, from a one-year-old and through his childhood… and of course, his parents never managed to change things for the better. He feels an obligation to do it for the next generation. He has a son now, so he’s more obligated to at least try to make things better.”
Johnsen took his own artistic approach when he went to edit his work. Having to wade through several hundred hours of footage (“I never really counted the hours of footage; maybe I’d be depressed if I knew”), Johnsen and his editor, Adam Nielsen, took to drawing out a vision of the final product. “We put the light pieces of paper over the walls,” he recalls, “and we painted what we wanted to do… just, drawings and writings on the wall. We went crazy for, like, a week, not editing but looking at footage and painting on the wall, to try to … capture some of the emotions we wanted to get through in the film.”
After the week ended, they thought perhaps the documentary should be a black and white silent film. “I think you can see in some parts of the film,” he notes. “We always had that idea in the back of our minds editing, that this could have or should have been a black and white silent movie.”
Johnsen might do another movie about Ai Weiwei. “The future is uncertain   he says.  I never plan....
Johnsen might do another movie about Ai Weiwei. “The future is uncertain," he says. "I never plan. I mean, I know I’m going to festivals and stuff like that… but other than that, I have no idea.”
International Film Circuit / Andreas Johnson
Movies aside, there's the issue of working directly with Ai Weiwei. “He actually asked if i wanted to do some collaboration on an exhibition project he has.”
Johnsen’s response? “Yeah, of course!”
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