The Current

'Human crisis': Ai Weiwei's documentary showcases plight of refugees

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has turned his lens on the massive scale of the global refugee crisis in a powerful documentary, Human Flow. He says this crisis is not limited to refugees and represents the human condition.

'The world let this happen right in front of our eyes,' says the outspoken artist

"This is ... a human crisis" CBC Radio: The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti talks to artist and activist Ai Weiwei

6 years ago
Duration 5:06
"This is ... a human crisis" CBC Radio: The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti talks to artist and activist Ai Weiwei

Originally published on September 28, 2017.

Read story transcript

Forty camps. 90 hours of footage. 600 interviews.

This is the work behind Ai Weiwei's latest documentary, Human Flow, in which the Chinese artist turns his lens on the enormity of the global refugee and migration crisis.

This is by every aspect [a] human crisis ... The world let this happen right in front our eyes.- Ai Weiwei on the refugee crisis

It's not an easy film to watch but that's the point, says Ai.

"It's a film not to please people, but rather to alarm the society [about] what kind of time we're in," he tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

The film began as a personal journey to the Greek island of Lesbos, where Ai saw refugees as they arrived on shore and began the trek to find safety in Europe. Over the course of filming, the artist and his crew visited 23 countries, including Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Bangladesh, Kenya, Afghanistan, France and more.

And yet, even that epic journey doesn't fully capture the enormity of the crisis. 

Human Flow is "a very broad view about the refugee condition," Ai says. 

"It's never complete, because it's just one artist's effort in visiting in one year."

Because of its scope, the mass migration is "the story of the 21st century" for Ai Weiwei, and he refuses to limit the crisis just to refugees. 

'This is by every aspect [a] human crisis," he says. "The world let this happen right in front of our eyes."

'How fragile the human condition can be'

Visually, Ai tried to encompass the massive scale of the crisis while showcasing individual stories.

In one scene, the camera hovers over a refugee camp, starting so far back that people look like insects — but as it zooms in, the shot reveals children playing around rows of makeshift housing.

"It is shocking," Ai says of that scene, "but it offers you perspective on how fragile the human condition can be."

Identity is such a profound question we all face.- Ai Weiwei

"It's really a matter of perspective: how we look at ourselves and how we examine our positions in the much larger landscape and towards nature and planet."

A sense of identity is at the core for so many people — especially refugees, Ai says. 

And it's not just people that are wrestling with the question of identity. Ai says entire nations are facing similar struggles.

Ai Weiwei had profound emotions while working on Human Flow.

6 years ago
Duration 1:25
Ai Weiwei had profound emotions while working on Human Flow.

"So you see nations like United States or Germany or England extremely troubled by self-identity, what values that society present, and who is speaking. And in defining those values, whose rights have been violated? Who is defending what?"

Ai Weiwei says the movie should move people to act and ask tough questions about how we have allowed the situation to become so dire. Otherwise, the crisis is doomed to get worse if we don't recognize and address its root causes, says Ai.

"It's going to happen for next generation and generations to come," he says.

"If we're not conscious about global, environmental change, the ecosystem, then easily, very easily, the mankind can be wiped out. This whole miracle can just come to the end. Then there's nothing to talk about."

'There's no rule. Everybody is vulnerable'

Artist Ai Weiwei, left, his son Ai Lao, centre, and wife Lu Qing on the red carpet for the film Human Flow at the 74th Venice Film Festival at the Venice Lido, Italy, Sept. 1, 2017. (Domenico Stinellis/Associated Press)
Ai Weiwei doesn't consider himself a refugee, but shares many of their experiences — like being pushed away from his own country and language. 

He's also familiar with the experience of being persecuted and targeted by one's own country. In 2011, the artist spent 81 days in a secret military camp in China after being detained at the airport, hooded, and taken somewhere.

No one knew where he was — not even his mother. Every day, two military soldiers would stand 80 centimetres away from him, 24 hours a day, not blinking or moving while he slept, ate, and even showered. But according to Ai, the physical and emotional intimidation wasn't the hardest part.

In the filming of Human Flow, Ai Weiwei travelled to 23 countries, went to 40 refugee camps, filmed 900 hours of footage and conducted 600 interviews. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

"It clearly tell you how vulnerable you are ... to think about the state kidnapping their own citizen and only because I have different ideas about what society should be," he says.

"I peacefully post those ideas on internet. That bring me in such absurd situation."

Today, Ai Weiwei lives in Berlin. And while he's technically allowed to travel to China, he has no plans to return soon. Two of his lawyers are serving prison sentences, and many of his friends are being held without ever having gone to trial.

He says the Chinese government is sending him a clear signal.

"They can do anything. That's the power of this kind of a society. To let everybody know there's no law. There's no rule. Everybody is vulnerable."

Persecution is not new to Ai Weiwei or his family. He was born the same year his father — a poet whose work was censored for 20 years — was banished to do back-breaking labour at exile camps.

In a controversial portrait, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei recreates the game-changing photo of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi. (Rohit Chawla/India Today)

Growing up, Ai Weiwei was by his father's side in hardship. The young artist watched as his classmates threw stones and dumped buckets of ink on his father. But if it weren't for these experiences, Ai says, he wouldn't have become the artist he is today.

"I'm not a decoration just to make … pretty images," he says.

"I'm always alert about human condition and humanity. [T]hose things are so important to me to hold on, to survive, to find myself identity. To give my own practice a reason."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Pacinthe Mattar.