Ai Weiwei -- The Fake Case: IDFA Review

Danish Film Institute
Accessible documentary serves as useful introduction to and informative update on an artist who's seldom out of the headlines for long.

China's most famous dissident is the focus of Andreas Johnsen's Danish documentary, premiering in competition at the Amsterdam documentary festival.

The art of dissent fills the canvas of Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case, Danish director Andreas Johnsen's intimate portrait of China's most internationally celebrated renegade. Providing a useful, topical introduction to one of the more intriguing figures on the world's creative scene, it's a respectfully unquestioning but  illuminating update on the subject's doings since Alison Klayman's Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012).

World-premiering at Amsterdam's IDFA, this examination of how the conceptual provocateur copes under governmental surveillance and restrictions made the three-strong shortlist for the Feature-Length Competition prize. Solid rather than outstanding, it could with suitable handling emulate Never Sorry's combination of extensive festival play, limited arthouse distribution (Danish release is Nov. 30) and small-screen exposure. 

The title refers to a legal tussle between the authorities and Ai's company -- named Fake -- over an alleged $2.5 million tax evasion, with the obvious implication that the lawsuit is a trumped-up affair designed to embarrass, discredit and humiliate the defendant. As the film begins Ai (in China, family names precede given names) hasn't long emerged from a period of solitary confinement, which he uses as the raw material for a new project, entitled S.A.C.R.E.D.

Throughout The Fake Case Ai's innocence is presented as a given - there's not very much discussion of the actual case itself -- just as his his worldwide fame presumably obviates any need to discuss the artistic merits of his current output. Of course, it's no surprise that the Chinese government  should be an invisible, gigantic boogeyman, often-discussed but always shadowy, faceless and voiceless. But Johnsen -- a documentarian with a decade's experience, best known for 2007's Good Copy Bad Copy -- might perhaps have considered including speakers whose view of Ai mirrored Ai's own healthy, innate skepticism.

An admiringly sympathetic approach was perhaps the price required for such close, extended access, as we observe several months behind the walls of Ai's nicely-appointed Beijing compound to which he's officially confined by house-arrest diktat. This  encompasses both studio-spaces and living quarters, Ai's partner Wang Fen and cute young son Ai appear in sequences emphasizing the bearded, Buddha-like Ai's private role as family man.

Speaking fluent English (which, like the English dialogue of native speakers, is subtitled) in hushed, reasonable tones, Ai quickly emerges as engaging, charismatic and eminently reasonable -- asked why he's so keen to "push the limits," he responds that he just tries "to exercise some of the rights that the constitution gave to me." Crucially, he's nearly always able to finding humor in the absurdity of his situation and the government's belabored efforts to keep him in check.

Stoically serene in interviews -- despite a nominal bar on speaking to the press, he evidently makes himself open to international media ("I always find a way to do these things") - Ai loses his cool only once, exploding with rage when one of his friends is violently manhandled by a plain-clothes cop in the street. The sleepy lion suddenly shows claws and fangs, his vehemence -- emboldened and augmented by the presence of so many cameras, including Johnsen's -- prompting an amusingly hasty exit by the government's panicked representatives.

At such junctures we see how international exposure via films such as The Fake Case is, mirroring the ongoing output of Iran's equivalent cause-celebre Jafar Panahi (This Is Not a Film), used by the artist as part of his sustained, resourceful opposition to what he sees as a doomed government's desperate measures. "Either they become more reasonable or they have to face some kind of revolution," he sighs, and it's fascinating to ponder how Ai's role in this grand international chess-game will play out: clearly no mere pawn, he is -- for now -- more of an unpredictable, game-changing knight.

Whatever happens, we can rely on further such documentaries popping up to supplement the regular coverage of Ai in newspapers, magazines and online media ("When I talk in China," he notes, "people pay attention to me.") Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case is a professional, straightforward example of the behind-the-headlines sub-genre, executed in slick high-toned digital video and eschewing the soundtrack music so ubiquitous in documentaries nowadays. Johnsen himself keeps a low profile, heard but not seen, chipping in occasionally with questions that range from the functional to the banal.

Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Feature-Length Competition)
Production companies: Danish Documentary Production, Rosforth
Director / Screenwriter / Director of Photography: Andreas Johnsen
Producers: Katrine Sahlstrom, Andreas Johnsen
Executive producers: digrid Dyekjaer
Editor: Adam Nielsen
Sales: Danish Documentary Production, Copenhagen
No MPAA rating, 89 minutes