Ai Weiwei on “Human Flow,” Refugees, and Countries Who Won’t Let Them In

Ai Weiwei is one of the foremost artists in the world. His art appears in the most prestigious museums of the world and on social media. He paints, sculpts, shoots photos, and makes music. He is also deeply engaged in the fight for justice, as shown in the documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.” He left China after years of censorship and abuse and now lives in Berlin, though he does not speak German. Perhaps that helps explain his passion for the refugees of the world, the subject of his new documentary, “Human Flow.”

In an interview. Weiwei talked about visiting about 23 countries and locations and about 40 camps, with about 600 interviews in seven or eight languages. “The total footage is over 900 hours.” The movie opens with simple, intimate footage from Weiwei’s own iPhone. “We never really prepared for our film to be this large. We started with just personal curiosity involved with this situation then later we think some of this footage was good, so I guess we have over a dozen shooting crews in different locations only because everything happens at the same time so you cannot wait to finish one and go to another one, you have to do it at the same time.” When asked whether the film is art, journalism, or advocacy, he said, “journalism is trying to report the truth, art is not about the absolute truth but rather our inner reflection that reflects about the truth. So it depends on how you handle it and also very much depends on how much art the truth is. It’s very hard even to see it that way because it’s my own film. You don’t really know. You need the measurement from somebody else. I don’t see enough films on refugee situations — actually I have never seen one. But if I do see, normally the information is news footage and it’s very different from news footage because we pulled out ourselves from dramatic sentimental and even violent images. We’re trying to show some general conditions of the human struggle.“

Even the bleakest images are often presented in the film in a striking or artistic manner. “We have no problem in doing it in an aesthetic way but we try not to make it too artsy or something that requires higher knowledge on aesthetics to understand the story. But nature is beautiful even in the most extreme conditions. Nature is so beautiful it sets up this kind of contradiction to our human tragedy. We just should not treat another human this way and nature is even indifferent about the situation.”

The film makes clear the intense, prolonged deprivation of these abandoned people. But it also acknowledges the challenges for other countries, even those who are most humane, in making decisions about who and how many to absorb. “This can be an argument to have about who should we have or not have or whether to build a fence or wall or to refuse entry. It all depends on our vision about ourselves, about humanity. I think very often those situations are not really made by a clear understanding of those issues but rather by politicians trying to use this kind of notion. Very often it divides people and builds up this kind of hindrance and that will cause a lot of problems in reality in the future. So that is why our film is trying to cope with the situations of human struggle as always known. People always have to escape somewhere. In recent history, just the past 200 years, many people just escaped their land because of war, because of the genocide, because of the discrimination and came to the US and made the US such a vibrant powerful state for a century. Of course people can say there are lot of criminals, yes but in any race there are a lot of criminals, so to use that as an excuse to have policies which are against humanity over basic human rights is never the right answer and it only creates more problems.

He spoke about a rise in anti-refugee, anti-immigrant rhetoric. “People kind of have a short memory and very, very shallow understanding about why people have to come so far. Who wants to leave their home? Nobody. They have their establishment, they have their own neighborhood, they have memories which no money can buy back and they have their career, they have their language and they have given up everything just to get to this land for a little while, to say, “Because otherwise my children is going to die.” That kind of argument still would not touch many people. They will say, “Just get out of here.” This is unacceptable in the 21st century. We have enough, enough resources and confidence about humanity, we can use our knowledge and wisdom to make life much tolerable or better. With all these people many, many refugees later become Einstein, Kandinsky, all those musicians, artists and great scientists. The refugees have one thing in common. They’re very brave. They’re willing to seek freedom. It’s great mind and heart and totally misinterpreted to see them as dangerous or see them as terrorists, I think it’s completely misleading.“

There are a lot of children in the film. “I think what is most tragic are those children who have no future. You see they’re bright, you see they don’t even cry in such a difficult situation, they’re quite healthy these days to cope with such situation but they have no future because they will never get proper education and their parents will never have time for them, they just have to worry about their own life so it’s wasted. So now it is very hard to swallow, those people could have a very bright future and could contribute so much to the society.”


Originally published at on October 9, 2017.

Movie critic, corporate critic and shareholder advocate, critic/editor at @ebertvoices @moviemom, and #corpgov #movies and editor at @miniverpress

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