Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case is a remarkably gripping documentary about one man – Ai Weiwei, China’s most internationally acclaimed artist, and his confrontation with the might of the Chinese authorities. The film, by Danish documentarian Andreas Johnsen, was screened for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on Friday in its Los Angeles premiere. It deals with Ai’s arrest and 81 day detention in 2011 and a subsequent year of house arrest in his Beijing home. Officially he was accused of tax evasion, but his real crime was to challenge the government politically. “It’s kidnapping, kidnapping by the state,” a downcast Ai tells the filmmaker.
The film takes up where a previous film on Ai, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, (2012) left off, and shows how after his detention Ai has been mentally broken down. He rarely laughs, has trouble sleeping at night, has bad dreams. At times his only solace seems to be playing with his young son. While he was detained he had two guards with him at all times, even when he tried to sleep - one beside his bed, the other pacing all night across the room and back. But if the authorities’ treatment of those who dare to challenge them is harsh, Ai the artist still finds ways of poking fun at his predicament. After his release he gets in a car and follows the plainclothes cops who are detailed to watch him, filming their car through his windscreen as they try to escape him. He poses for a series of sculptures showing himself in captivity, which are spirited out of the country and put on display at the Venice Biennale. He steals the ashtray used by some of his guards and presents it as an artistic exhibit to a museum.
Underneath Ai’s jousting with his captors is a deadly serious struggle for freedom of expression: “If I don’t show my voice, I think I am dead already,” he says. “This kind of expression is important not only for artists, but for everyone to be able to speak out.”
When the court says he must pay $1.5 m in bail, ordinary citizens in Beijing passing by his house spontaneously start tossing folded 100 RMB bills over the wall into his compound - eventually he receives 9 m RMB (about $1.5 m) in donations. Ai is very touched by the support - “Young people are so generous and brave. This has never happened in Chinese history before.”
In the longer term Ai thinks he is winning: “Somehow we will have political change - either they will become more reasonable, or we will have a revolution.” But Ai’s case also shows how all-embracing the current system is: When the filmmaker asks him why he obediently calls his parole officer every time he leaves his house, he says “I have to respect him - if I don’t call him, he will get into trouble. We are all victimized by the system.”
In a question and answer session after the screening, Robert Chi, who teaches Chinese film at UCLA, voiced his skepticism about any imminent political change in China, pointing out that the government has delivered huge economic benefits to the younger generation, dissuading them from protesting again like in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago. But at the same time Ai was released after just 81 days - many other political detainees spend years in jail, including China’s only Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, currently serving an 11 year prison sentence. Chi speculated that Ai’s detention was kept relatively short because of his international reputation - suggesting that the government is not completely deaf to outside protest.