Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Anyone familiar with American TV, whether it’s Cops or a court procedural, is tired of hearing the Miranda rights. And anyone familiar with American culture is tired of seeing the not-so-law-abiding rich and famous get a slap on the wrist—or, at worst, a sullied reputation—no matter how heinous the crime.
In China, expect the opposite. Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case, follows the titular renowned artist (designer of Beijing National Stadium, that oddly beautiful centerpiece of the 2008 Summer Olympics) after he was detained for 81 days in 2011 while attempting to board a flight to Hong Kong. Under probation during the doc’s filming, 56-year-old Weiwei says to a friend, “They clearly, clearly tell you: ‘You cannot have a lawyer.’” Not so clear, however, is why authorities arrested him in the first place.
Eventually, the government drummed up a charge of tax evasion by Weiwei’s design company, Fake. But the politically outspoken artist was also told that the reason for his imprisonment was “subversion of state power.” Weiwei had dared to keep a blog that promulgated his opinions on the Chinese government. For that, he was kept in solitary confinement, with two guards always in his cell (one continually marching even while the prisoner tried to sleep). Contact with his family was verboten—Weiwei’s 80-year-old mother, after all, had come under fire in her youth for being an “intellectual.” If it were 1957, she says in the film, “The government would have killed him already.” His driver and doorman were arrested, too.
Throughout the documentary, Weiwei repeatedly shuts down requests for interviews and, after he’s released, tells journalists that he cannot say anything—which makes director Andreas Johnsen’s access all the more impressive. Slyly traveling in and out of China with no filming equipment beyond cameras containing photos any tourist would have, Johnsen became Weiwei’s shadow, with the artist apparently unafraid of repercussions once the film was released. In fact, Weiwei set up four 24/7 webcams in his home; he may have been wary of official press, but he didn’t hesitate to live otherwise normally during probation. “I have no secret; you have a secret,” he allegedly told his captors.
Weiwei seems alternately entertained by and weary of his situation. He’s giddy when he catches men spying on him during one of his daily walks, then finds and briefly tails their car. But there’s also a scene in which Weiwei lets his reportedly volatile temper flare, when, on the day of his hearing, cops surround his office and visibly hurt a photographer. The stocky tank of a man nearly comes to blows with an authority figure.
Though its topic is incendiary, The Fake Case is, for the most part, remarkably serene, with Johnsen including frequent shots of the artist staring off (even nodding off), reading things online, and filming or taking photos with his ever-present cellphone. Throughout, Weiwei comes across as smart and strong-willed, but also thoughtful, nearly gentle. He has a young son, too: One odd and somewhat distracting detail of the documentary is that the boy’s mother appears and speaks in several shots, but is never identified as his wife, girlfriend, or anything else.
Weiwei also proves that inspiration can come from anywhere. His latest work, S.A.C.R.E.D., is a creepy six-part sculpture of his experience in prison. Presented in peephole diorama form, each box contains eerily lifelike scenes of moments from him being interrogated to sleeping and eating, as guards with no concept of personal space watch him. It’s a fascinating work. And it also explains the one thing Weiwei did allow himself to tell a reporter when asked about his plans upon release: “Enjoy life,” he says. “Everybody should enjoy life.”
Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case is showing at E Street Cinema.