The Danish filmmaker spent four years filming Chinese artist Ai Weiwei despite heavy surveillance, and the impact the film could have on the artist’s future.
Photo by Timme Hovind
There’s a particularly poignant moment in Danish filmmaker Andreas Johnsen’s new documentary, Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case, that goes like this:
“How many are you making right now, five or six?”
“It’s: Eating, shitting, walking, sleeping?”
“Oh yes, interrogating. And finally, brushing teeth?”
“No, not brushing teeth, showering.”
“Right, that’s six pieces.”
“They’re quite big. If we transport them separately, it shouldn’t be a problem, right? And it must be your name on the containers. Understand?”
“Are you worried about national security?”
“No, I won’t worry about them. I just can’t have anymore problems right now, too much trouble already.”
The conversation occurs between Ai Weiwei, the 56-year-old, world-renowned Chinese artist, and one of his business partners, who are discussing the former’s new artwork. The pieces were inspired by the ten weeks of solitary confinement Ai underwent and the secrecy and mystery of the circumstances under which he was detained by the state.
On April 3, 2011, Ai Weiwei was on his way to board a flight to Hong Kong when he was arrested by Chinese authorities. He was not charged with a crime and secretly detained for eighty-one days in a cell at the Beijing Capital International Airport. “There were two soldiers in Ai’s cell round the clock. They changed every six hours and marched back and forth while he was sleeping. It was psychological terror,” Andreas Johnsen says. In a music video Ai calls Dumbass, the artist attempts to reproduce this nightmare.
Ai’s probation, on charges of tax evasion, officially ended on June 21, 2012. However, authorities are still withholding his passport, making him unable to legally leave China. His house, apartment, offices, and activities are under surveillance (and video recorded) by the police twenty-four hours a day, and he must also check in daily with a probation officer.
Over a four year span, from 2009 through 2012, Johnsen shuttled back and forth between Denmark and China, acquiring unprecedented access to and clandestinely filming the artist. The result is an exceedingly human portrait of the man Art Review calls “the world’s most
powerful artist.” Johnsen captures Ai’s huge personality in beautifully mundane shots. Ai sitting on a couch joking around with a friend, or with his little boy in the swimming pool. Or, in a scene that is mostly very grainy and dark, standing in the kitchen with his girlfriend, who says that she’s experiencing a kind of paralysis of her own being while raising a baby. These moments show how painful the circumstances under which Ai is living are without bringing in the rhetoric of rights and free expression and governmental oppression.
Johnsen is an intrepid, self-taught filmmakers, having made twelve films virtually solo. He has shot in Nicaragua, Brazil, Jamaica, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria, creating moving portraits of people he’s met in the street or during previous travels. One film, Natasja, is about a Danish reggae singer’s breakthrough in Jamaica. Another, A Kind of Paradise, focuses on artists, musicians, and poets in six African nations.
During the filming of The Fake Case, Johnsen finds Ai at an extremely vulnerable time, when he is recovering from confinement and learning to cope with his life being documented 24/7. The last thing the artist wanted was someone following him around with a camera. But, out of a wealth of footage, Johnsen has produced a nuanced and quiet portrayal that even Ai acknowledges is a “great film.”
I had the opportunity to sit with Johnsen in Copenhagen while attending the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival in mid-November. This year, the organizers of the festival invited Ai to program a series of films related to the theme “Everything is under control.” Johnsen’s documentary played on opening night.
—Pamela Cohn for Guernica
Guernica: When you were in Beijing with Ai, how did you interpret what you were capturing?
Andreas Johnsen: I’m afraid this [Ai's detention and the aftermath] happens much more than we know. Most of the people this happens to we never hear about. And he’s aware of this, too, and that’s why he uses his celebrity and his high profile as he does. There are much stronger critics, much more hardcore dissidents than he, who get much tougher treatment. For instance, there’s the case of the blind lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, who was under house arrest. They literally built a wall around his entire house. There are many people. I think the fact that Ai is so famous is the reason nothing more serious is happening to him.
They don’t know anything about art or the art world and what kind of power it yields.
Guernica: Ai’s work mirrors the absurdity of the government’s methods. And by all indications, he is getting away with this. It’s getting out into the public sphere through his website and through the network of international galleries that represent his work.
Andreas Johnsen: These people [the authorities] are confused and actually extremely naïve. They don’t know anything about art or the art world and what kind of power it yields. They just know what he is saying and they never research actually what his art is about. They don’t understand it. They don’t understand the concept of art.
Guernica: He doesn’t appear to be at all fearful, but he must be.
Andreas Johnsen: He is. He is, of course, scared and afraid of what could happen. He knows there is a risk that he can be put away again, for even a longer period of time. But for him, standing up for your rights is much more important and he just can’t let that go. It’s so deep in him.
In the film you can clearly see that he has everything—a comfortable life, nice homes, a family. It would be so easy to just let things go quiet and enjoy his good life. But I think it’s like part of his DNA. He’s a fighter and there is a family legacy of oppression. His parents were considered dissidents and “enemies of the state” as well, during the time of Mao, and he saw what happened to them. And the nightmare of that is continuing into his generation. He has to try to do what he can to ensure that this doesn’t continue into his son’s generation, no matter the cost to him personally.
Guernica: Is international pressure being put on the government? Do you think your film might help to change Ai’s circumstances?
Andreas Johnsen: I think the political pressure from outside does have an effect on the Chinese government. When he was kidnapped, it was because of all the pressure from the politicians in Europe and Hillary Clinton’s statements and all that that really helped free him sooner than he might possibly have been without it.
Guernica: Do you think this is ultimately why he agreed to do the film with you?
Andreas Johnsen: No, not at all. I mean, I know the film starts right after his release from prison, but I actually started filming with him back in 2010. I was already in contact with him about making a film in 2009. It’s been a very long process. During the eight times that I’ve been able to travel to film him and stay with him in Beijing, we’ve become very good and close friends. So for him, it was natural that I was there when he was released. It wasn’t even a question of asking for permission at that point. He wanted me to be there, to support him, and just to be present.
Guernica: How did you get such intimate access?
Andreas Johnsen: I got his private mobile number from a friend in Beijing and I called and told him that I am a filmmaker from Copenhagen and that I wanted to make a film with him. His initial response was, “No, no, no, no. Never gonna happen. Everybody wants to make a film with me—Hollywood, Europe, everybody. I have so many offers of films. I’m not interested. I have no time. I’m too busy.” I told him that I wasn’t going to take any of his time; I just wanted to follow him and see how he works. In my films, I don’t ask people for interviews. I don’t ask much of anything. He told me again it wasn’t possible. I waited a few months and then I asked a friend here in Copenhagen who runs Faurschou, a gallery that shows Ai’s work and that has a satellite gallery in Beijing, to bring a package to him with my previous films with a nice, handwritten letter asking him to watch some of my films starting with the latest one, Murder, from Nicaragua, about the abortion law there. He watched the first five minutes. After watching that he told his personal assistant to call me and tell me that I could come anytime.
Guernica: Describe the scene he watched.
Andreas Johnsen: The opening of the film is with one of the leaders of the Sandinista party. I have this interview with him. We get seated in his office and we’re ready to do the interview. We ask him about the abortion law. He immediately tears off the microphone and gets practically hysterical and starts shouting at us. “No! I’m not going to talk about that!” There was some kind of misunderstanding about why we were there or his secretary didn’t explain to him the reason for our visit. And, admittedly, I tried not to say directly what it was we were doing because I knew they didn’t want to talk about it. But just capturing him being so angry and upset and screaming that this was an internal affair for only Nicaragua and that they didn’t want anyone from the outside bothering them about it, and to keep your business to yourself, blah, blah, blah—well, he basically ended up kicking us out of his office. And I have all that on film.
It was so beautiful for me because it said much more about the situation there than if we had made an interview about it. And Ai was very impressed by that because he enacts the same kinds of provocations with police and government officials. He gets them to react all out of proportion to what he’s asking or saying.
Guernica: Did you try to make appointments with any Chinese officials while you were there?
Andreas Johnsen: I couldn’t. I was there through a friend so I was keeping a very, very low profile. I didn’t bring anything in or out.
Guernica: Did you leave your camera there?
Andreas Johnsen: I left a lot of equipment there and just brought small things in and out, touristy shots in the camera of Beijing and that’s all.
Guernica: So there was nothing to indicate that you were shooting with Ai to draw the attention of customs officials or some other authority that might want to look through your things?
Andreas Johnsen: No, nothing. During those four years that I was shooting with him, I never posted anything online or wrote about it, made any interviews. It wasn’t until two years into the process that I started to get financing. It was all very low-key, very discreet. It was way too important to ensure that I could keep going to China.
Guernica: This seems harder and harder to do for most filmmakers, who seem to feel they must start marketing campaigns for their films before they’ve even taken the first shot. It’s interesting that as a Dane, you have access to funding scenarios and support way beyond what most countries offer, yet you just pick up your camera quietly and start shooting on your own.
He makes huge artworks and he’s larger than life.
Andreas Johnsen: How do you know I do this?
Guernica: Because I read an article about you. They described you as “a lone wolf.”
Andreas Johnsen: You know, I’m a very curious person. I want to investigate things for my own satisfaction. I needed to make a film about China but I didn’t have a project. I’ve been watching documentaries and stories about China for the last decade, but I wasn’t sure what story it would be. And then it just struck me that it should be about Ai Weiwei. It was obvious. He makes huge artworks and he’s larger than life.
Guernica: He does have a big personality. In one scene he gets absolutely furious and we see this enormous rage. It’s kind of a relief.
Andreas Johnsen: It happens. I can’t say it happens often, but he has attacked his followers, these secret agents that are always there, lurking and watching him. This scene in the film when we expose them in the café and he and his driver decide to steal the ashtray with all their cigarette butts and then follow them in the car—well, on that day, he’s in a very good mood, so it’s funny, and they take the piss out of these guys in this silly car chase. But if he had been in a bad mood… I know that there have been instances where he has pulled them out of their cars and physically accosted them and asked them why they’re following him and to please leave him the fuck alone. He does have a very bad temper. He’s very confrontational and wants to provoke them, of course. But it’s always kind of within the limit. It’s the burden of his life, because he’s sure of what the law would allow and he tries to be careful not to cross some borders.
Guernica: Does he have bodyguards for protection?
Andreas Johnsen: No, he doesn’t. His driver is always with him. He’s surrounded at all times by friends, or people he knows very well.
Guernica: Has he seen the film? What does he think?
Andreas Johnsen: The last time I went back to shoot some final stuff, like the shower scene at the end, and to talk to him about some things, was in February of this year. I brought this rough cut my editor and I had done and showed it to him and he was so surprised.
Guernica: Why surprised?
Andreas Johnsen: During those years that I had been filming him, things were just crazy. He never had time to really help me or pay any kind of attention to what I was doing, guide me, communicate with me. I was absolutely on my own. It’s actually very typical of him to make his staff and all the people around him show him their responsibility, their involvement, to prove to him that they can do their work. I told him that I wanted to make a great film about him and he told me, “Okay, you can do it, but I don’t have time to help you.” I mean, I was with him all the time and he would tell me that he was going to have a meeting with this person or that person and I just had to tag along.
Guernica: Do you speak Chinese?
Andreas Johnsen: No. [laughter] But this is the way he is with everyone around him, his assistants, his employees. He gives them huge responsibilities and if they live up to it, he has unending trust in them. It was the same with me. So when he saw the rough cut, he was surprised because he loved the film. He really was so impressed. He said to me, “I knew you were going to make a film, but I didn’t know you were going to make a great film.”
For me, what I really love about the film are the scenes where there isn’t much said.
Guernica: What did he like about it?
Andreas Johnsen: He was impressed at the footage I chose to use. With the footage I have, I could have made three films about Ai Weiwei. He liked the fact that I, and my editor Adam Nielsen, really carefully chose the footage and the scenes, made the choices we did. He liked the same things you did—the subtlety, the intimacy. For me, what I really love about the film are the scenes where there isn’t much said. He liked that, too. He thinks that it captures the way he was feeling at the time and he can see himself in it. He recognizes himself.
Guernica: We’ve already touched on this, but do you think about the impact this film might have on a more profound level, say on his legal case in China?
Andreas Johnsen: I will say this: it’s very important for me that he doesn’t get into more trouble than he already is in. The authorities, we can assume, know everything there already is to know about what he does and what’s happening around him. There are some conversations that we had in the film that they probably have not heard or are not aware of.
Maybe it will help get his passport back. Maybe it will worsen the chances that he’ll get his passport back. I mean, he’s always saying he has no desire to overthrow the government. He just wants them to follow the law. That’s all. He’s not really doing anything illegal. I think that’s so beautiful, especially in his situation. He respects the Chinese culture. He respects the history of China. He’s not “Westernized” because he’s lived a dozen years in New York, nor is he overly influenced by the Western world. He knows what his world consists of in a very realistic way. He wants his rights restored. That’s all.