Last night’s “feature” was a PBS P.O.V. (it stands for “Point of View”) episode I recorded in September 2015 (back when I could still record TV shows for later viewing before my cable system went “all-digital” and my DVD and VHS recorders ceased to work with the new signals) called Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case. The film started life as a 2011 documentary, a cross-production between the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Danish Documentary Production — the imdb.com entry also lists something called “Roskilde,” a Danish city that regularly hosts a rock festival that gets A-list bands from all over the world (Nirvana gave a scorching live performance there in 1992) but I didn’t know there was also a production company named after it (or does “Roskilde” merely mean where the offices and facilities of Danish Documentary Production are located?). Its subject is Ai Weiwei, the internationally famous Chinese artist best known for designing the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics, but notorious in his own country for photographs of nude people, many of them with political content (including one famous one in which 100 people posed nude for him, all wearing nothing except pictures of Mao Zedong — or, as we knew him when he was still alive and in power, Mao Tse-Tung — over their “naughty bits”), that had already put him on the authorities’ watch list well before he won the major commission for the Beijing Olympics. Ai Weiwei was allowed to start a blog on Sina Weibo, the main Internet platform in China (remember that China keeps its Internet as closely guarded and censored as it does all other media; their pattern of blocking access to foreign Web sites and automatically denying Chinese people access to sites with provocative words in their names like “democracy,” “freedom” and “human rights” has earned Chinese Internet censorship the name “Great Firewall of China”) in 2005 but it was taken down in 2009 because he used it to criticize the government, especially for its slow response to the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province. In August 2009 he was beaten by police in Chengdu as he was trying to testify for Tan Zuoren, who’d worked with him investigating the government’s responsibility for the deaths in the Sichuan earthquake, and as a result he had to have emergency brain surgery in Munich, Germany. In November 2010 Ai was placed under house arrest by the Chinese police for having allegedly built a studio in Shanghai without permission; he was released after one day but barred from ever leaving China again.
On April 3, 2011 Ai was arrested at Beijing airport while he was on his way to Hong Kong; the authorities sent 50 police officers to search his studio and detained eight of his staff members and Ai’s wife, Lu Qing. Six days later Ai’s accountant and driver both disappeared. Ai Weiwei was kept in a small, isolated cell until June 21, when he was told that he was being granted “bail” on condition that he confess to income tax evasion — the confession included not only him but also the international corporation, Beijing Fake Cultural Development, that handles his business affairs (and of which his family says Ai is “neither the chief executive nor the legal representative of the design company, which is registered in his wife’s name”) — but he was kept under house arrest for another year, forbidden to post online or give media interviews, and told that he could appeal the judgment against him but only if he agreed to put up 2/3 of the amount of taxes he allegedly evaded, $1.33 million. (The total judgment was about $2.4 million.) The film, directed by Andreas Johnsen, picks up the story when Ai is released from prison and returns home to his wife and his two-year-old son Ai Lao (remember that Chinese, like most Asians, write their names with the family name first and the given name last; among Caucasians, only Hungarians do that). Ai explains that he’s changed the route of his morning constitutional walks so he can observe the 18 cameras the authorities have around his property so they can keep him under surveillance, and when foreigners try to meet with him he has to explain to them that if he gives any comments for publication abroad, he risks being sent back to jail. He also explains that he is still under investigation by the authorities for distributing pornography — Ai notes to the filmmakers that the Chinese government equates nudity with porn (a debatable case because none of Ai’s nudes are doing anything even remotely sexual, nor are they “flashing” any sex organs) — and the spontaneous campaigns that started all over the world to raise money to cover the money Ai would have to put up to appeal the tax charge against him.
Ai’s major artistic response is to create an installation illustrating the cell he was imprisoned in, done to its exact dimensions and featuring a sculpture of him lying in the cell’s bed, which has to be cut up into six pieces, each shipped out of the country separately to different locations before they are taken to Venice, Italy for the Venice Biennale, the hugely important exhibit of provocative new art that takes place every other year (hence its title). Ai refers to the trial against him as “the fake case” — punning on the name of the company and the lack of any factual basis for the charges against him — not that the Chinese government needs any. What comes through most strongly in this documentary is not only the oppressiveness of totalitarian rule but its maddening arbitrariness; a long-established dictatorship like China has long since mastered the art of leading out the lines, making its creative people think they’re enjoying a rare moment of freedom (a “thaw,” as it was called in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev), and then suddenly, arbitrarily and for no discernible reason reeling them back in, arresting them, making their lives hell and even after their release forbidding them to leave the country. There’s a dark but also humorous moment at the end when Ai realizes that on his way out of prison he forgot to ask for the return of his passport — and the official he’s talking to decides that they’ve decided not to give it back to him. He pleads with them to give him back his passport, even if they stamp it not valid for travel outside China, but they insist they’re not doing so. (It was not until July 2015, four years after this film was made, that Ai Weiwei once again was given a passport and the freedom to travel outside China.) In another scene, Ai notes that ironically his apartment is in a building right next to the American Embassy — and Johnsen films the roof of the U.S. Embassy from Ai’s living room and it looks like it might just be possible for an actor (or his stunt double) playing James Bond to leap the distance, land on the roof and demand asylum and leave the country, but not a middle-aged man in mediocre health that had been worsened by previous police attacks on him. Meanwhile, the Chinese government censored Ai’s works from two big art shows in 2014.
The film is haunting in its depiction of the permanence of the Chinese tyranny — particularly when Ai’s wife recalls going through her own period of persecution and arrest during Mao’s crackdown in 1957 (when he ordered what was called a “Hundred Flowers Movement” — “let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend” — only to end it and put the country in reverse when he decided too many dissident schools of thought were contending and the regime’s control of Chinese politics would be threatened if it continued) — even though the film ends with a scene showing Ai in a car, defiantly insisting that he’s going to remain in China because he won’t be able to do anything to change the regime if he leaves the country, and the soundtrack gives us Nina Simone’s recording of the Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse song “Feelin’ Good” (fading it out just after Hal Mooney’s awful orchestral arrangement comes in and wrecks the song and her eloquent performance of it). Though the PBS version was cut down from the 86 minutes of the theatrical release to just 54 minutes, plus a three-minute interview with filmmaker Johnsen, what remains is a heart-rending portrait not only of an individual’s courageous resistance to totalitarianism but what the totalitarians do to him — though, ironically, much of the dialogue consists of Chinese obscenities that are wiped through not only on the soundtrack but the subtitles as well (this film blessedly uses subtitles instead of voiceovers to translate the Mandarin Chinese into English), a reminder that the Western world has its own arbitrary and maddening censorship even though the consequences of breaking our rules are hardly anywhere nearly as horrendous as those of getting on the wrong side of a government like China’s, which as I’ve argued in these pages before combines the worst of both worlds: the totalitarian dictatorship and ideological control of Mao’s Communist era and the use of that repressive state apparatus to ensure that the Chinese people remain slaves to international capitalism and work long hours for shit wages to produce the Western world’s playthings — including the Apple Macintosh computer on which I am writing this.