Ai Weiwei follows the flow of the refugee crisis

Free from house arrest, the Chinese artist travelled the world to make the documentary Human Flow

HUMAN FLOW directed by Ai Weiwei. An Elevation Pictures release. 140 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (October 20). For venues and times, see listings.

Ai Weiwei gets up to shake my hand, and I’m at a loss for words. Although I’d seen the Chinese artist, activist and dissident speaking earlier in the week at the Toronto premiere of his new documentary, Human Flow, I can’t quite believe he’s made it here, and I tell him so.

“You thought I would die before you see me?” he says, chuckling.

Not that, exactly, but having followed his work for the last decade I was a little worried he’d never be allowed to leave China.

A defiantly political artist, Ai’s installations and documentaries have long mixed puckish humour with righteous anger, calling out the Chinese government’s slide into authoritarianism. Alison Klayman’s 2012 documentary, Never Sorry, depicted a period in which Ai endured constant police surveillance, an assault that led to his hospitalization with head trauma, and 81 days’ detention.

A subsequent documentary, Andreas Johnsen’s The Fake Case, followed the next phase of the battle, as Ai’s travel was restricted and legal challenges were brought against his studio. Ai kept working. Ai kept speaking. 

Ultimately, the government backed down and Ai moved to Berlin just as the civil war in Syria began displacing hundreds of thousands of people. And, Ai says, witnessing the European Union’s hostility to the refugees at its shores – and his own experience as the son of the exiled poet Ai Qing – spurred him to make Human Flow.

“My father spent about 20 years in the Gobi Desert area,” Ai says. “At one point he was forbidden to write – that’s probably the biggest punishment a poet can have, to be forbidden to write. I’ve seen enough hardship and extreme discrimination upon human beings, and this is not surprising to me, to see people being treated this way. 

“What surprised me was to see Europe and North America – the most privileged states, they have plenty of everything – just turn away from their fellow human beings, escaped from disaster. And many, many of the refugees’ problems have their root causes in early colonial exploration, or even recent wars – you know, the Iraq wars or the Syrian war. We’re all part of the cause.”

Ai spent months visiting displaced people all over the world – in Turkey, Lebanon, Italy, Greece, Pakistan, Kenya, Jordan, Gaza and even the U.S.-Mexican border – visiting with them, observing them as they move through their spaces. In a striking visual motif, he also uses drones to photograph those spaces from a high altitude.

“From one kilometre high, people don’t look like what we think of as people,” he says. “We all look quite pitiful and irrelevant. At the same time, if you think about new technology, in the past decade the U.S. used drones to kill people all over the world with huge, huge civilian casualties. It changes the moral foundation and practice of war, and this is a very big hidden problem. Seemingly those problems aren’t related to everybody, but they are. Think about what kind of world we’re living in.”

Ai wants it to be a better world, and he is leading by example. Whenever someone in a position of authority confronts him, he extends his hand and introduces himself, interacting with them on a personal level. He’s shown trying it with Chinese plainclothes police in Never Sorry, and he does it again in Human Flow when a U.S. Border Patrol officer interrupts him and his crew shooting on the Mexican border.

“I’m hopelessly friendly,” he laughs. “But you know, they’re also human beings. Even our limited understanding [of each other] is still part of the human condition. And that’s something we have to deal with.”

I ask him whether offering a friendly face to hostile authority ever really works – he’s been beaten, jailed, threatened with exile and separation from his family.

“You’re putting yourself in a position not to make a direct confrontation,” he says. “You’re making an argument, but you’re not making an argument directly to the power. Of course you always have to remind yourself to be calm, and that the game is much more complicated than just to put up a fight personally. 

“It’s just the persistence to still take one more step. And one more step.” | @normanwilner

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