Hunched over a chessboard table on a rainy afternoon during Hot Docs inside the University of Toronto’s cavernous Hart House building and prior to a screening of his latest self-produced and self financed documentary, Danish filmmaker and artist Andreas Johnsen can now look back and laugh at the stresses surrounding his latest project, but he also clearly learned a lot from the experience and the subject of his latest documentary.
For Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case (opening this Friday at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema), Johnsen followed around a man who was recently crowned “the most powerful artist alive” by ArtReview magazine. Known around the world for his large scale art installations, Ai Weiwei has become the most widely revered and talked about artists in the world. He’s also seen by the Chinese government as one of their most potentially dangerous dissenters.
Johnsen wanted to make a film about Weiwei back in 2009, and he actually started filming at the same time as Alison Klayman was shooting her own documentary (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which opened Hot Docs in 2012). But once Weiwei was arrested for “subversion of state” and a list of other complex, vague, and more likely than not trumped up criminal charges, Johnsen decided to abandon looking at the artist’s life before prison. Instead, his film deals with Weiwei trying to cope with his voice being robbed (he’s not allowed to talk to media or speak openly and overtly about his situation to this day without potential consequences) and his life under house arrest. It’s a world where the professional and playful Weiwei has to get creative with his art and politics while being under constant surveillance from government agents.
Johnsen talked to us about being allowed into Weiwei’s inner circle, how his film differs from Klayman’s work (and how they work together), the various ways the artist tested his resolve as a filmmaker, and what he learned about Weiwei and his current situation.
Dork Shelf: Was there ever any intimidation when you decide that you want to follow a man like this around, especially when he’s at a vital point in his life and his career?
Andreas Johnsen: Yeah! The most powerful artist currently alive. But I wasn’t afraid he would be difficult to work with. No. I’m never afraid of anything, and I didn’t ever assume he was going to be difficult to work with. I knew there was a good chance that he wouldn’t work with me. When I called him for the first time back in 2009, he totally refused the idea of ever making a film with me. Then after about six month, I started to convince him.
He saw one of my films that I had made called Murder, which took place in Nicaragua and was more of a political film, and I think he realized that the Nicaraguan politicians were not cooperating with me in much the same way that the Chinese system was doing the same with him. They were equally non-communicative, but I was able to get the Nicaraguans to talk somehow in that film. He really appreciated that and was really impressed by it. He also really liked the fact that I was independent and I work by myself and that I was completely in control of the product I make. There was no one ever behind me and no one was ever trying to sell something to me. I’m doing my own distribution and all that stuff and I make all of those decisions.
But yeah, he was totally not into me doing a film about him, probably because there were so many people who wanted to make a film about him.
DS: And some that actually had!
AJ: Actually, Alison (Klayman) was shooting at the same time as me. When I started shooting in 2010 when he finally agreed to make the film, I started shooting at the studio, and after a couple of days and I had been shooting, Alison walked in. (laughs) She was looking at me filming and wondering who I was, and I thought the same thing! It was a pretty awkward moment because Weiwei hadn’t told either of us about the other person. It might have even been on purpose! (laughs) That’s so Weiwei! He was just standing there grinning and stroking his beard like he had pulled one over on us. Then again, I don’t know that for sure and it’s totally possible that he might have just forgotten about Alison. He’s so focused on what he’s doing in the moment, and his life is so constantly changing that nothing is ever really planned. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do when he wakes up in the morning.
We just filmed together and I kind of incorporated her into my footage, and it wasn’t really a problem for me. BUT all of the time we were shooting together was prior to his arrest, and none of that footage that I shot from before his arrest was anything I ever ended up using in my film. I was filming for about a year and a half before he was arrested, and I wouldn’t say that time and footage was a waste because during those visits we built a really strong relationship and a close friendship. It was because of that reason that I think he let me follow him around again so soon after his release.
DS: It’s great that both of you ended up with two completely different films about the same person that work so well. It’s almost like yours could pick up the second Alison’s film ends.
AJ: Exactly! You can see that natural progression. It does pick up right when her’s ends. Of course, I dd see her film when it came out in 2012, and I said “Okay, this is what she did and I can do my film like this.”
But I actually always knew that my film was always going to be different from her’s even when I started. She’s a journalist and I’m not at all a journalist. I don’t even know if I’m really even a filmmaker. I don’t have that kind of education to call myself either. But what I do like to make are images that tell stories. I think my film is very different from her’s so it wasn’t ever a big problem for me at all.
DS: It’s also interesting that both your film and Alison’s are helping Weiwei to, in some ways, create new forms of art. There’s something really gutsy about your film and just the concept of following a man around who wants to desperately speak his mind, but he’s completely unable to in an interview setting. In its own way, this film almost uses you as a collaborator in how he’s trying to tell his own story when he can’t do it himself.
AJ: Well, I would like to make it clear that from the beginning that this is totally my film. I mean, when I first sat down with Weiwei he told me, “Look, man, you just make the movie you want to make. I won’t stop you or try to change your direction in any way. Even if you want to make a film that’s critical of me, I would be totally fine with that.” So he really let me do whatever I wanted in those respects, and he has been really supportive of the film and what it has been doing, which is great.
Maybe you have to watch the film a couple of times, but after a while you’ll notice that he’s looking right at me in certain moments. We knew each other so well that he did see where I was going to be that he was actually sometimes able to position himself to where I needed him to be and in turn everyone else would sort of follow suit around him without ever directing anything. We could set things up just by looking at each other. But it definitely felt like a collaboration.
The scene where we’re having a cup of tea and we see these two government agents that are following him and he’s filming them with his iPhone was almost all him. I couldn’t film him publically, so we decided to sit down for tea and take a break. He just takes out a phone and says, “Don’t you think this is the best place to be watching from?” (laughs) He just walks over there to here they’re parked, and they are so ashamed that we discovered them and we exposed them. It was very much that Chinese concept of “losing face,” so they aren’t saying anything and it just feels really awkward. Anywhere else in the world, agents like this would have said “Okay, I’m going to arrest you now” if you did that. Or if they were normal people, they would just say “What the fuck are you doing? Get that camera out of my face!” But this was so embarrassing for them, but we are having the time of our life. And then we just started chasing after them in our car.
DS: That was great. What’s it like being in a car when you are chasing after government agents in a foreign country?
AJ: (laughs) A reverse car chase. That was so awesome. Of course I wanted this to take place, but I knew I was really not equipped to be in that situation. One, because Weiwei’s health is definitely not the strongest it has been. He gets overly excited and he has a temper, so anything could happen and something might happen to his heart. So I’m nervous about something happening to him. And at the same time, I knew that it involves a certain risk for me, too. If they decide to suddenly stop putting up this act, they could arrest both of us.
DS: It seems that Weiwei works in a similar way with people that Salvador Dali did where he likes to test people’s limits and see how far they are willing to go when they are working on a project with him. Did you ever get that sense that was what he was doing?
AJ: (smiles big and shakes hand) Thank you, Andrew, for noticing that! He was testing me! “Can you handle it?” People are always coming up to me and saying, “Oh! You made a film with Weiwei! That must have been so great and so fantastic! He’s such a sweet guy and it must have been just the easiest thing to make!” No. It wasn’t. It was a fucking nightmare. Of course, I love the guy and we’re great friends, but it wasn’t like he was helping me make the film in any way. I had to prove every day that I wanted to make this film. That was my responsibility, and he was testing me to make me prove not only that I could make the film, but that he could also trust me. Given the situation that he was in, he needed to know that every day, 100% that he could trust me, and you can’t blame him. So yeah, he was testing me with everything.
I also got the sense that’s what he also does with his employees. He’s very good at giving other people huge responsibilities. Someone would ask him to be a curator of an exhibition or to deliver a piece of art, and he’ll say “Okay, you two over there, make this.” He doesn’t have the time. He’ll ask people on a Friday to go out and come back to him on a Monday with all the ideas of how to do something, and then he’ll go through and make drawings and notes and cross stuff out. He gives people responsibility, so it’s a great chance when you work with him to learn a lot about being productive, and creative, and how to expand their network worldwide if they can live up to his expectations. And if he doesn’t like it, he’ll tell you. He would say something like, “What? Are you fucking brain dead?” He’s really straight.
DS: Both your film and Alison’s definitely show that he does have a side of him that isn’t afraid to be honest about the work. A lot of why people seem to focus on him tends towards the political, but he’s also very deeply professional when it comes to his art and that sometimes gets forgotten about.
AJ: Well, I wouldn’t say his work is more political. It’s always about the art first, but that art always ends up becoming more political. It’s always about the art, but because of his life and his inability to stay quiet and to not comment about what he’s experiencing in Chinese society, that becomes more and more political.
DS: He seems to enjoy to an extent how satirical his life has become and how little he can say. One of the scenes in the film that I wanted to talk to you about because of how much it stands out is the part where he’s talking to a journalist who is shamelessly begging to be Weiwei’s first interview out of prison.
AJ: That was so absurd to be there, and of course he asked me, “Well, what are you doing here?” Because he sees me there with this camera and he’s asking me why I’m filming when he was coming in. I said I was making a documentary on Weiwei and the guy nearly loses it. Then I had to tell him I had been working on the documentary for three years, and then he calmed down and we had this really embarrassing conversation and what we have in the film. He doesn’t seem to realize that Weiwei is actually offering him a piece of art, this piece of a performance. He doesn’t see it. He’s totally blind and he doesn’t get it. It’s perfect for the film, but it’s so embarrassing for the media. It shows how narrow minded they are to his situation.
DS: He handles his inability to talk with a lot of savvy. He’ll say something and then immediately retract it and say, “But I can’t say that.” And he’ll just smile about it and shrug it off.
AJ: It’s a way to survive for him!
DS: Did you notice a darker version of Weiwei from when you started filming him before his arrest and then after his release?
AJ: Yes. Totally. He changed a lot. It took about three or four months after his release to be a bit back to his normal self. But when I was first back there when he came out of the prison, I was wondering if the real Weiwei would come back.
I think the more attention that we can bring to his case will help not only him, but also to all other activists in China and around the world. He’s famous and everyone knows about him, but there are a lot of other activists around the world who are treated much worse than he is. I was just showing the film in Istanbul last week, and they loved it because it’s sadly so similar to what is happening in Turkey right now. I think the film can help around the world wherever there’s repression or restrictions on freedom of speech.
And one of the reason why Weiwei is helping to promote the film is because he knows the more attention the film gets, the safer and more secure he feels. The outside world is what keeps him alive. It’s because people know him. It’s not because he’s known only in China. If he wasn’t known outside of China, he would probably be dead by now. That’s a scary thing to think about. His life is so uncertain. To live life every day and not know if they are just going to take you again. That’s an impossible stress and uncertainty.
I know he actually just finished his own film about his court cases and the whole process. It premiered at Rotterdam, and I haven’t seen it advertised anywhere else, but from what I heard, his film is difficult to understand if you’re not Chinese. I don’t know if he made that intentionally for the Chinese, but it might be to show just how inscrutable the Chinese legal system actually is. To the rest of the world that system doesn’t make sense, but I hope in my film I somehow make as much sense of it as I possibly can. I really tried to not focus on all the details of the case because there are so many details and so many cases.