In 2011, Ai Weiwei spent 81 days confined in a small cell, where he was watched 24 hours a day by two guards. Forbidden from going outside, Ai got needed exercise by pacing the room end to end for hours. When he was released on bail, the Chinese government claimed Ai had pleaded guilty to tax evasion, a crime rarely investigated in China. The real charge leveled against him, Ai states in the documentary Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case, the charge that officers questioned him about in over 50 rounds of interrogation, was the one that had also been leveled against Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo and democracy activist Hu Jia: subversion of state power.
In 2010, Iranian director Jafar Panahi was jailed in Tehran for 88 days, during which he went on a hunger strike to protest his lack of access to a lawyer and his family. Shortly after his release, an Iranian court sentenced Panahi to six years in prison and banned him from making films, giving interviews, and traveling for 20 years. His apparent offense was much like Ai’s: making propaganda against the system.
Despite their supposed crimes, though, neither Ai nor Panahi has been incarcerated since their initial detention. Panahi’s prison sentence, so far, remains unenforced, though he could be hauled to jail at any moment. Instead, he has spent the past four years under various conditions of house arrest, most recently telling the Wall Street Journal that he is free to travel within Iran but cannot leave the country.
Similarly, after his release, Ai spent several months living under strict bail conditions that required him to ask his probation officer’s permission before leaving the house. To this day he still has not received his confiscated passport, and therefore can’t leave China.
With their movement limited but not prohibited, their freedom circumscribed but not outright extinguished, Panahi and Ai have both taken to testing the boundaries of their censorship. In The Fake Case, a documentary directed by Andreas Johnsen about Ai’s life following his release from jail, Ai goes from telling reporters that he “cannot talk” to increasingly taking interviews, cautiously ascertaining the limits of the government’s leash.
Panahi, meanwhile, has flouted his filmmaking ban by co-directing two films since his arrest: 2011’s This is Not a Film, which was famously smuggled out of Iran on a USB disk inside a cake, and Closed Curtain, which premiered at Berlin International Film Festival in 2013 and was just released in New York. Both are intensely personal films, the first about his time under strict house arrest in Tehran, painfully portraying his daily life in detention, and the second a more conceptual exploration of creativity and art under the restrictions of government censorship.
Panahi’s two films, Johnsen’s Fake Case, and Alison Klayman’s 2012 doc Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry help spotlight the particular forms of government repression that Ai and Panahi face, a slow grind meant to push the artists into despair all while avoiding the overwhelming international outcry that would result from imprisoning them. In neither case has the government outright succeeded, though both have managed to alter the men’s work, transforming their art into a new form of expression that’s part protest, part therapy, and entirely a matter of personal survival. In The Fake Case, Ai tells his friend, “I am not a political artist. I am political,” the point being that the struggle for freedom has ceased to merely inform his work; it has become the entire reason for his work’s existence. For Panahi and Ai, every film, every exhibit, every interview is evidence that they have not vanished into the night. Watching them struggle to keep up hope and resilience, however, makes you realize the uneven terrain on which they are fighting — it’s a long game now, and the Iranian and Chinese governments both seem to think they can prevail through sheer patience and stolid determination.
The most fascinating revelation that emerges from watching Never Sorry and The Fake Case, which profile Ai before and after his detention respectively, is the trajectory of Ai’s relationship to Chinese political authority.
For Ai, a certain level of rebellion runs in the family. His father, the poet Ai Qing, was a victim of the Communist Party’s anti-rightist movement. In 1958, when Ai Weiwei was just a year old, Ai Qing and his family were sent to a worker’s camp, where they remained until the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976.
In 1981, Ai Weiwei became part of the first generation of artists to legally leave China. He spent the next 12 years living in New York, an experience that helped mold his characteristic recalcitrance. As Never Sorry details, Ai was fascinated by the protests he attended and, in particular, by the Iran-Contra hearings he watched on TV. It was the ability of the American government to put itself on trial, so to speak, which inspired him.
Never Sorry details Ai’s developing relationship to China, to its past and its modernization, to its politics and its harsh restrictions on personal freedom. This relationship is characterized equally by frustration and care. Both elements can be found in Ai’s famous photos that display him dropping and smashing a Han dynasty urn. As one interviewee notes, the images offer a double-pronged critique: from an outside perspective, they can appear to display an irreverent attitude toward the past and even toward the country, but they also force the viewer to confront a fundamental tenet of Modern China. The country’s Communist experiment was predicated on a radical break with the past — the Cultural Revolution in particular enforced the destruction of the “four olds”: old customs, beliefs, habits, and thinking. The project led to the destruction of several Buddhist temples and artifacts.
What seem like dismissive images, then, actually invite the viewer to better understand and question Chinese modernization. Ai’s art makes complex political realities impossible to ignore. When he uses the same style of backpack worn by the thousands of children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake to spell out the phrase “she lived happily for seven years in this world” along an entire wall of a Munich museum, transparency becomes the defining demand of his art as well as his politics.
Still, what’s noteworthy in retrospect about Never Sorry and Ai’s life before his detention is the line that evidently still exists between his politics and his art. On the one hand there is Ai’s Munich exhibit, on the other, his detailed accounting of all the children who died during the Sichuan earthquake, which leads to the publication of their names and birth dates on his blog. There is the work he produces for the Tate Modern that consists of covering the museum floor in millions of individually crafted ceramic sunflower seeds, and there are the documentaries he produces for audiences in China about the earthquake and the confrontations with police that result from his activism. These projects may share common themes and even goals, but they can be discussed separately from each other, sorted into evidence of art in some instances and activism in others.
By the time of The Fake Case, those two sides of Ai are hardly distinguishable. The pieces we watch him work on during the film are recreations of the cell in which he was held in detention. They show Ai and his two guards during four different activities: eating, sleeping, pacing, and being interrogated. In creating these models, Ai battles his natural desire to block out the details of his incarceration. And in that respect, the dioramas are equally works of art, protest, and remembrance.
The shift in Ai’s art can be traced directly back to his detention, of course, but Never Sorry also details Ai’s prior accumulation of confrontations with authority, of showdowns with a system that barely acknowledges an individual’s existence, let alone individual suffering. Ai has been testing the limits of censorship and expression since returning to China, when he self-published his Black, White, and Grey books, which gave Chinese artists and writers a space in which to discuss their avant-garde art. In 2000, he curated an exhibit that served as an alternative to the state-sanctioned Shanghai Biennale and showcased Chinese performance and experimental art. Its title, translated to English: Fuck Off.
Despite such confrontations — the Fuck Off exhibit included Ai’s famous photograph of himself giving the middle finger to Tiananmen Square — Ai was commissioned to design the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics. Ai later boycotted the event in protest of the displacement of locals and civil rights abuses that came with it, but it was only after the Sichuan earthquake that he began clashing more regularly and violently with authorities.
While trying to attend the trial of fellow activist Tan Zuoren in August 2009, Ai was hit in the head by a police officer. In September, Ai traveled to Munich and underwent surgery to treat a brain hemorrhage that he claims was linked to the attack. Upon returning to China, Ai filed complaints against the police and attempted to force them to investigate the issue. They refused. He tried to file lawsuits but made no progress. In July 2010, government officials ordered the destruction of Ai’s recently completed Shanghai studio. Ai held a demolition party in protest. Eight months later, he disappeared for 81 days.
Ai’s detention was therefore an escalation in an increasingly hostile relationship. And following his release, Ai has continued his unique combination of stubborn protest and humorous dissent. In The Fake Case he diligently, if futilely, fights the tax evasion charges and also occasionally pulls playful pranks, like following around the surveillance car that is meant to be following him. Ai’s time in prison at some points even seems to have aggrandized him, making him believe that, given the right tools, he has the power and influence to cause a revolution in China.
But other scenes send more distressing signals, none more than one toward the end of the film when Ai confronts a policeman outside his compound trying to confiscate his friend’s camera. “You son of a bitch,” Ai yells. “You fucking son of a bitch . . . Take a look at what the fuck you have done.” The explosion of rage is surprising, particularly given the relatively common, if undoubtedly objectionable, action that the officer is taking. It’s one of a handful of signs that Ai’s struggle to maintain a cool temperament, to persist in his fight, can’t hold forever. His father, Ai recalls at one point, failed to keep up such hope; he attempted suicide several times after being repeatedly persecuted by the government. Ai never sinks into such despair, at least not that we see. Rather he seems to skew more toward confidence, stating several times a variation on the belief that “somehow we will have political change.” Fake Case is not a hopeless work, but watching it, one can’t help but think of Ai’s earlier words from Never Sorry: “I know very well that here, in the end, they will completely crush you.”
The same sentiment comes through with even greater intensity in Panahi’s This is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, two personal movies that gaze long and hard at the potentially fatal repercussions of resisting Iran’s repressive regime. Panahi, an internationally acclaimed director whose films have won prizes at numerous festivals, was detained in 2010 as he was finishing a film about the Green Movement that challenged the 2009 re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Police broke into Panahi’s home, confiscated his equipment, and arrested him, along with his family and several friends. Everyone was released soon after except for Panahi, who was incarcerated for three months then later found guilty of making propaganda and acting against national security, placed under house arrest, and prohibited from making movies for 20 years.
Closed Curtain in particular explores how the human psyche can slowly suffocate and shut down when unable to work, to express itself, to live. The film begins as a narrative feature about a man whose name we never learn and who is listed in the credits by his profession: Writer (played by the film’s co-director Kambuzia Partovi). We meet him as he arrives at his villa by the Caspian Sea and proceeds to place thick, black curtains over all the windows. He is a man obviously retreating into hiding, though why he must flee isn’t entirely clear. It’s hinted that he, like Panahi, is an artist who has been prohibited from practicing his craft, but it’s also indicated that his dog, Boy, has caused the problem, since its illegal to keep the animals as pets in Iran.
The scenario’s realist elements slowly begin to fade when two strangers mysteriously appear at the villa one night, claiming to have walked in through the open front door, though the writer is sure that he closed it. The two, a brother and sister, are also on the run from the law, and the brother eventually leaves his sister while ostensibly going to find a car in which to take her home.
The sister, Melika, roams the house for the night, under the watchful eye of the writer, who has been warned of her suicidal tendencies but nevertheless gets increasingly irritated by the sudden disruption of his seclusion. And then, just as suddenly as she arrived, Melika disappears. The next morning, the writer recreates the original scene of Melika’s arrival on his iPhone, describing every step that occurred in an attempt to convince himself that it was not all just a dream.
That Melika is not just a woman on the run, and possibly something other than a normal human presence in the villa, is confirmed when she reappears from thin air a few scenes later in the film, acting as the writer’s inner demon, questioning his artistic abilities in such a confined life (“You think you can capture reality, especially in here?”), and declaring that the only proper response to his situation is resignation.
Panahi’s point, at this juncture, is fairly clear — the writer stands in for the director and Melika represents, as the writer puts it, “desperation itself.” But Panahi twists the plot one step further when, about halfway through, he steps out from behind the camera, breaching the narrative boundary and turning the film from fiction to non-fiction, or at least a hybrid. Panahi rests now at the center of the allegory, pulled toward despair by Melika, who tells him “there is no other way. Follow me” as she walks into the Caspian Sea. The writer, meanwhile, is suddenly an equally ghostly presence in the villa, a counterpoint to Melika’s desperation, pleading with Panahi to stay resilient.
In The Fake Case, Ai explains that his continued defiance of state authority after his release comes partly from necessity; “If I don’t talk,” he says, “I will be dead already.” The need for self-expression is equally the thread that runs through Closed Curtain and This is Not a Film. The latter’s central scene has Panahi attempting to imaginatively sketch out a scene from one of the films he hoped to make before being banned from filmmaking. Panahi uses tape to construct an abstract set in his apartment and proceeds to act out the different roles, only to realize the futility of the exercise. It’s a dispiriting moment, but it’s also a necessary one: Panahi realizes then that he cannot merely look past the censorship that’s imposed on him but must actually confront it (something represented, of course, by the very existence of This is Not a Film).
In Closed Curtain, the same plot device takes a more conceptual turn. The scene in which Melika and her brother first arrive in the villa is played out in some form three separate times — first as a straight occurrence, second in the writer’s retelling of the event, and third through a final shot in which Panahi and his small crew are visible filming Partovi’s recreation. Every time, the link to reality is weakened, and that dissolution through repetition lends added despair to a film that, in the end, chooses art over resignation and life over suicide — the writer over Melika.
Panahi’s use of repetition pinpoints the central problem for censored artists, who must continue, against all odds, to tell their stories over and over, so that both the world and they themselves don’t forget them. Stories retold, though, run the risk of losing their sense of reality, like words repeated time and time again. Watching Ai lash out against the police officer and Panahi consider his final walk into the Caspian Sea, we witness the merciless psychological pressure that both men are subject to.
In Evan Osnos’ Age of Ambition, Ai expresses his frustration at this treatment, at his state of restricted freedom: “Every day I’m waiting to see maybe an official knock on the door and say, ‘Weiwei, let’s sit down, let’s have a talk. What’s your point? Let me see how ridiculous you are.’” Instead, Ai is left to feel like he’s fighting against an enemy that barely recognizes the battle. For Panahi, the mental toll that comes from being forbidden to work and express himself is equally taxing. “I feel sometimes I’m the prisoner of my own thoughts,” he said in a recent interview with Filmmaker Magazine about Closed Curtain. “It’s difficult to live in this large prison. It’s like a hell in which everything seems to be internalized.”
At one point in The Fake Case, Ai’s mom tells Ai that “if this was 1957 they would have killed you already.” Her remark signals not only her worry for her son, but also a shift in tactics by the Chinese government. The repression that Ai and Panahi face is perhaps less immediately fatal, but it’s equally terrifying. It stifles artists while paradoxically allowing them the limited freedom to yell until their lungs give out, until their stories lose their power, until the artists themselves lose faith in their causes. Until, in other words, the government doesn’t need to silence them because they have silenced themselves.
Tomas Hachard is an assistant editor at Guernica Magazine and a film critic for NPR and Slant Magazine. He has also written for Slate, The Atlantic, and The LA Review of Books.