You don’t often hear about documentary sequels, but this year’s Hot Docs has a few of them. Although technically this is not a direct sequel, as it does not come from the same company or production team that made the 2012 Hot Docs hit Ai Weiwei: Never Story, Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case does pick up the thread (gauntlet?) from that previous effort. It’s quite a compelling threat, too, because in this documentary, it must be asked just how Ai Weiwei, an artist and agitator in China, can continue to do what he does best when the Kafkaesque machinery of the Chinese state is literally watching him right outside his door.
The film starts with Ai Weiwei returning home after 81 days in detention for tax evasion, which is basically the Chinese government doing a cover of Eliot Ness because they’re tired of the artist speaking out and you can’t black bag someone as internationally renown as Ai Weiwei. Even the artist’s own mother knows this. After being released, he visits his mom, who says that she’s scared for him because some of his writing was quite harsh. “You would have been killed already in 1957,” she says in a matter of fact tone.
Fortunately, this is not 1957, but China does have its eyes on Ai Weiwei at all times. Not only does he have to phone the local police to let them know that he’s leaving home, and not only is the secret police following him around, but in order to fight the tax evasion charges in court, each phase of the appeal demands that he pay a large portion of the outstanding debt. Ai Weiwei has exactly one year of probation before his restrictions are lifted, and for a while, it almost seems that the government has gotten their wish: a much more subdued and dull Ai Weiwei. Of course, that would be a boring movie.
It takes him a while, but the artist does start to find his groove again, not to mention his humour. He sets up four web cameras around his house so that people online can watch him constantly. As for larger projects, he begins collaborating to create scale replicas of his living conditions while in jail. Ai Weiwei tries to recall it all in detail so it will be as accurate as possible, but when he gets stuck on his usual lunch menu in prison, he admits that it’s hard to remember because he spent so much time trying to forget.
If Never Sorry was a kind of tour du force Weiwei, an artist obsessed with breaking whatever barriers that rise up in front of him, the man we get in The Fake Case is more contemplative. He plans his attacks carefully, recognizes that there’s a time and place for everything, and doesn’t just lash out because he can. That’s not to say there isn’t spontaneity. One afternoon, Ai Weiwei and his driver start following the government agents who followed him to the park, and then collect the ash tray full of cigarette butts they left behind and turn it into a new art piece. Despite earlier signs that he was going to keep a low profile after his brush with the law, Ai Weiwei says that he doesn’t worry about being killed for speaking out, because if he doesn’t use his voice, he’s already dead.
There are a lot of documentaries about people pushing the boundaries of tolerance for those in power, but I’m not sure if the message of The Fake Case is persistence pays off, or you have to go so big that the government doesn’t want to mess with you (too much). And although Ai Weiwei is a grand cultural icon, the documentary makes sure to highlight that the man at its centre isn’t an island. He’s always collaborating with other artists to bring his ideas to life, and in one scene, that I admit felt kind of staged, people threw 50 or 100 Yuen bills over the wall of his home to help cover his legal costs. It’s a small, quiet act of defiance, but the message is loud and clear.
One need not be an art critic or political operative to appreciate Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case, but this titular subject remains as engaging as ever. From the quiet moments when he’s wondering when the other shoe’s going to drop, to his interaction with fans and other artists, to his steely determination lying beneath his usually plump and jovial frame, Ai Weiwei remains, if nothing else, a character in his own right.