A Colossal Interview 

Ai Weiwei and Examining the Humanitarian Crisis Captured in his Documentary Film ‘Human Flow’

November 1, 2019


This interview was recorded on Monday, April 30, 2018 in Chicago and has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Our editor Christopher Jobson sat down with Ai Weiwei while he was touring his documentary Human Flow, a film that documents the human refugee crisis spanning 20 countries in stunning scale.

Christopher: Human Flow captures conflicts that have been ongoing for 10-15 years, and even much longer in the making. Was there a moment or incident where you said this film needs to be made?

Ai: Yes. I had been paying attention to the refugee crisis since 2014. At that time I was still in detention, with no way to leave China, and I never knew how long that was going to be. It could have been my lifetime. So, I sent two of my studio colleagues to Europe to a refugee camp to film and interview people, but this was just the first approach.

“If we don’t find beauty and dignity in suffering, that means we don’t understand it, the human condition.”— Ai Weiwei

By 2015 I had a chance to leave China. They gave me a passport and said “you’re free”. So my first move was to go to Lesbos in Greece—with my son and girlfriend, to have a vacation. But in my mind, it was to see how these people are coming to Europe. And at that time, maybe a half million people had already come through this little, little island. And I had questions. Who are they? Why do they have to do this? How is Europe receiving them? How are these issues being dealt with? So it was my personal curiosity. I’ve always been defending human rights in China, fighting for social justice… it’s that kind of country, you can’t avoid speaking out.

One night I’m standing on the shore, seeing boat after boat, women and children in unthinkable conditions. And I realized this was much bigger than I can even cope with. I have to record it. So I called my studio in Berlin to move to Lesbos, and I started to organize a filming team, and I wanted to record this part of history, as a witness. And for myself to study, to have a research team about global refugee conditions, the history, the current situation, and then it got bigger and bigger. So we had to organize a few teams to cover the situation in very different parts of the world.

Video still from Human Flow.

Christopher: A lot of people have found the cinematography to be really beautiful. You use drones to capture the natural surroundings of these places where people are fleeing, and you also mentioned that when you were editing the footage that you wanted to “find footage that was more calm” as opposed to say, tragic, and I was wondering if you could tell me a bit more about the decision to frame the movie this way, to make it more accessible.

Ai: I think there are two reasons I did that. One reason is accessibility, another reason is how we look at the so-called tragedy. You know, very often we see tragedy at great distance from our natural experience, so we think this is extreme, so different, so difficult to understand, and the next sentence is: we don’t understand it, we don’t accept it. I wanted this to be viewed very humanly, to see these people a few more seconds, their face, their look, how they take care of a cat, and to [evoke the viewer’s] memories of real life, and real people, and then you can judge them. Are these dangerous people? Do they need help? Do they have the right to ask for safety for their children or should they be totally neglected—which is basically what the Western nations are doing. They’ve pushed them away, they’ve come up with policies to make their lives more difficult. So yeah, I think we have to give dignity to human suffering, human suffering is a ‘normal’ condition throughout human history. If we don’t find beauty and dignity in suffering, that means we don’t understand it, the human condition.

Christopher: One of the more memorable moments for me in the film, is when you symbolically trade passports with a gentleman named Mahmoud. I’m curious how that event unfolded and what that meant for you.

Ai: In those camps you feel so desperately helpless, it’s like an insult to yourself. Because as an artist or whatever, you’re not the one who’s being victimized, you’re witnessing the pain and seeing the bleeding. So very often you come up with an ironic act, like when we were cutting each other’s hair, or you say let’s change passports—and then he says you have to take my tent, and I say you have to take my studio. You know, kind of ironic conditions because his passport has no use, nobody recognizes his passport, his nation doesn’t even protect that and they just push him away. My passport I just gained a month ago, or a few months ago, I was totally denied what it was to have a passport. So it’s a completely ironic situation.

Christopher: Yes, it’s all so absurd when you think about it.

Video still from Human Flow.

Ai: Yes, who do these borders really stop? To whom do these borders have no meaning? I think to the rich and powerful. To politicians, there’s no border in the world.

Christopher: Millions of people have fled from Syria in the last few years. The U.N. said it’s 6 million now, and this year the U.S. so far has accepted 11 of them. Of course it’s impossible for any one nation to fix the problem or maybe even to deal with it, but when you were traveling did you see any countries that were more compassionate than others, or more helpful, or maybe somebody who is trying to do the right thing?

Ai: Many nations are trying to do the right thing, like Germany or Canada, or certain nations, they have more relief. The attitude toward human struggle is more understandable. But a situation like the U.S., which I still think is the most powerful nation in the world, with an abundance of resources, a place that helped establish human rights and human dignity, and protecting life, and even the values of Christians to help the ones who are in need. So that is so ironic, at the same time it shows that nations like the U.S. have simply forgot their responsibility to save many refugees—like the Iraqis and others who have been created by the U.S. The war is not totally stopped, millions have lost their homes, hundreds of thousands have lost their lives. And the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and many other nations, always have U.S. involvement, and you’re still the biggest arms seller.

Christopher: … to those same countries.

Ai: Yes, and to Saudi Arabia. Those [weapons] are made to create problems, and at the same time [the U.S. doesn’t] bear any responsibility. Instead you say ‘I don’t know you, leave me alone,’ or ‘I don’t want to know you,’ or ‘I don’t want to associate with you because you’re a liar, a traitor, or a shameless person.’ But [an entire nation] that performs like this? Or the leader of a nation—it has this effect. We have a moral obligation to imagine a kind of future to leave our children with something to be proud of. Not to mention everyone in the U.S. comes from different nations, somehow, somewhere, and many of them are the children of refugees and come from a tragic historical event.

Christopher: You mentioned the trip to Greece for vacation and you mentioned yesterday how the decision to include yourself in the film came later, it came organically, it wasn’t something that was planned. I was wondering if you could talk about how your process for creating visual art versus creating this film, was it similar or did you approach this differently?

Ai: I’m always looking for a balance. How much art should be in there, or how much morality. So the balance of it is very important because aesthetics and moral judgment always have to support each other. So should I be in there, should I not be in there, it really came from a later argument. You can see most images I’m in, its not a designed shot, but it helps with a line of narrative. I think it’s honest to say this is a film by this artist, I’m not a professor of history, but an honest, almost naive approach to a very complicated issue.

You can follow the artist on Instagram.