On April 3, 2011, renowned Chinese artist/political dissident Ai Weiwei was arrested at Beijing’s Capital International Airport. He was on his way to Hong Kong but instead spent the next 81 days in solitary detention, where he was interrogated by the Chinese government. Ai wasn’t allowed to have a lawyer, nor could he contact his family to let them know his whereabouts.
Ai’s crime? Well, that depends on who you ask… The official reason given for his arrest was tax evasion. Unofficially, Ai contends that it was made clear to him that his detainment was about having an opinion and not being afraid to share it. “They say I am very influential and somehow they think I am subversive to the state power,” the artist says in Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case, Andreas Johnsen’s enthralling new documentary—opening today in New York City—which documents the year Ai spent under house arrest following his release.
While the film certainly falls into the “art documentary” genre, the bulk of its screen time isn’t about art-making. Rather, it’s about the aftermath of art and the lasting impact it can have on a viewer. In a way, the film picks up where Alison Klayman’s 2012 film, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, left off. Whereas Klayman’s piece showed the artist preparing and installing some of his more prominent international exhibits at venues through, Johnsen chooses to focus his camera on Ai Weiwei: The Activist instead of Ai Weiwei: The Artist.
But whatever you do, don’t call him a "political artist." When Li Zhanyang, a sculptor friend, reminds Ai, “You once told me that usually political artists are not real artists,” Ai is quick to respond. “I’m not a political artist, I’m just political,” he says in the film.
It’s candid conversations like this one and shared moments with friends and family members that make Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case so compelling. To see the man who has been painted as an enemy of the state in tender family moments—teaching his young son how to swim, discussing the ways in which one’s perspective changes when you become a parent, being advised by his equally politicized mother on the importance of family above all else—makes Ai a far more accessible character, despite his immense talent.
By keeping the camera squarely on Ai and using mainly on-screen text to explain the various challenges he faced during that year—including the legal case against him, his failed attempts to appeal it, and the threats made against those who tried to assist Ai (including his lawyers)—Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case serves as a timelapse of the year in the life of a persecuted man. And while he never waivers in his convictions about right versus wrong, the toll of the artist's ordeal is evident.
In the end, it is through art that Weiwei is able to begin the process of healing. In the film’s final chapter, Weiwei creates S.A.C.R.E.D., a series of six dioramas that document his time in captivity. The piece premiered at the 2013 Venice Biennale.
Ultimately, Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case is a statement on the impact that even a single voice can have and the importance of art in carrying that message forward. “If i don't show my voice—if I don't act as I believe—then I think I'm dead already,” Ai concludes. “This kind of expression is not only necessary for artists, but for any being to show they're alive, they have to speak out. Especially to the kind of danger that can really affect everyone.”