Call for Action: Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's 'Human Flow' documents worldwide refugee crisis

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In Human Flow, Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei documents the worldwide refugee crisis, combining the power of his nuanced aesthetics with his firsthand experience of exile. There are currently 70 countries that wall themselves off from their neighbors, he tells us, denying refuge to millions fleeing war, genocide, famine and the effects of climate change. In his quest to bring us to our senses, he visits refugees at walls and camps in Turkey, Greece, Palestine and the United States, reminding us that this is an international problem whose solution requires the full measure of our intelligence and empathy. Ai Weiwei recently spoke with Director Talk.

Director Talk: Let’s begin with the title. In English, it’s Human Flow. When you think of flow, you think of something natural, like water or air. But the human flow in the refugee crisis is completely manmade. It’s completely unnatural. Does the Chinese title also have that same juxtaposition?

Ai Weiwei: The Chinese title is even worse. “Human flow” in Chinese means “manmade abortion.” China is never going to play this film; besides North Korea, China is the only location that never bought distribution rights. Even areas where we filmed refugees—they all bought it. Turkey, Israel, the Middle East, they all bought local rights to distribute it in theatres. But that’s another story.

Back to human flow: If we’re not talking about war, if we’re not talking about hatred or differences or religion or all those arguments, then it is a human flow. Even the flow in water is caused by some unknown reasons. Since early civilization, records show people coming out of Africa, then maybe a thousand years before Jesus Christ, the Jews left Egypt. You can call them all refugees. You can look at those facts as human flow, because we’re always trying to find a new place that is more suitable or where we can survive or have a more prosperous life.

DT: That’s the point you make at the end of the film.

AW: Yes, because we have to look at it more in that way to understand that this is human nature. It’s human dignity and rights to have the choice [to move] or to help those people.

DT: It’s a very powerful film. For me, one of the sources of its power is a juxtaposition between micro-focus and macro-focus. Was that intentional?

AW: Yes. I had a strong intention to have the maximal understanding of the words of human beings and also refugees’ vocabulary of the flow itself. But I also wanted almost a poetic portrait of a human being. It could be children, oddly, or women, or the tiger that people loved so much that they had to rescue it [from one of the refugee camps]. The film has humor but also both very historical grand thinking and the texture of a real touch, a cup of tea, a blanket, all those kinds of necessities.

It is created also in the image. We have drone [shots] from an abstract, indifferent look to gradually seeing human activity, which is really on the surface, it’s not deeper or above. It’s right on the surface. Then you have some kind of understanding of those problems that really are created by human beings, which make some of us so miserable and pitiful that they couldn’t survive another day, or even if they could survive another day, they don’t have a future. Those people are sacrificed. Wasted. On the other hand, you have to listen to their stories. Once they start to talk they have to stop, because it’s hard for them to even repeat. And they all have the same stories. It’s about human cruelty and violence, abuse and neglect.

DT: In the film, you say 70 countries now have walls to separate them from their neighbors. There have been a number of films about the refugee problem that focus specifically on Europe, but you look at it all around the world, recognizing it as a universal problem. This puts the responsibility for solving it on everybody, everywhere. As you said in your film Disturbing the Peace, “In clarifying the facts for Tan Zuoren, we are clarifying them for everyone.”

AW: I always see humanity as one. If someone’s rights are violated, we are all deeply hurt. Even if we don’t know it, it still hurts us. If we know it, we have to act on it. In any kind of religion, to save one life or to help one life is the highest ritual. Nothing can be higher than that. So we all know those things and then we all…

But modern life is often cut off from responsibility. We all feel: What can we do? This is so big. I made this film to say: Yes, you can do something. This is a film made by an artist. You can make one piece, or you can tell your children that that these kids in refugee camps will never go to school because such a thing is happening. We always have to share this compassion with other people—otherwise, how can we call ourselves human beings?

Each generation has to define those values. You can never take freedom for granted. It’s not possible; it will rot. It rots immediately. This kind of effort I’m making is just one person’s effort. Every situation is there, and I can only grab very little, a tiny fragment compared to what kind of darkness humans are being treated to in history. It’s a way we understand ourselves. I think it’s necessary to understand our own position.

DT: You don’t swim. Did that create a visceral connection for you when you filmed the refugees arriving in boats?

AW: My primary visceral connection was my childhood experience when my father was exiled. Every refugee in the world has twenty years, on average, of living in exile. I had my ten years growing up in a very remote area after we were pushed out from our home. I was born the year we were sent into exile. Ever since then I never had a home. Ten years is not a short time. So that gave me a backdrop for how I can feel naturally as part of this unjust condition. I can sense those people. I can feel their fear, their sorrow, and I can also enjoy the moment they feel happy.

Many of them feel happy. You see big families, thirty people, and you can see there are still family ties there. People sharing, the older people are respected. If you offer something to the children, they often ask their parents, “Should I take it?” They have dignity. They’re not beggars. They come only because if they didn’t come, they would die, so they only made one choice—to stay away from death. Europe or other nations try to find an excuse to push them away or store them in Turkey or somewhere else; they even pay money as long as the refugees don’t come to European land. It’s very selfish and very shameful.

DT: You refer to climate change in the Africa sequence in Human Flow.You’re currently doing a series of talks in New York City. Are you finding that people are not aware that climate change plays such a big role in the refugee crisis?

AW: It’s obvious that climate change is not only about playing a big role in the refugee crisis. Before the Syrian war, there were seven years of drought that made the area very unstable. It could be that things happening in Houston could happen every year. New York now has the longest summer; it’s October, but it’s still so warm. Humans have such a short time on Earth, but we’re experiencing such dramatic change. That means something. That means the end has come. It’s not an exaggeration. Many, many scientists have said that with this kind of change, we can easily predict the future. I really believe in scientific research because it all comes out of clear analysis, but I can also sense that our condition, our ecosystem, our environment is in a very fragile condition. Think about the fact that thousands or millions of planets don’t have life. Why? Either they don’t have this kind of miraculous condition or they’re too close to the sun or too far away. They’re too hot or too cold.

We are very fragile. As humans we cannot take such change, but we are not really appreciating the whole beautiful miracle, human development, culture. Instead we are very blind or very greedy or shortsighted. We still have so many nuclear bombs. One day if we don’t stop them, they’re going to be used. It’s a very dangerous world we’re living in, but it seems we sleep very well. Yes, there are lots of nuclear bombs around us, but we sleep well.

DT: Exactly so. Can we talk a bit about your use of objects and rituals in your films? In Human Flow, the final shot, which starts on the backpack and then drones out, was very reminiscent of the piece you did with the backpacks honoring the girl who died in the Chinese earthquake. There are also objects, like a doll, and rituals, like a haircut, in Human Flowthat you echo in your music-video “Dumbass.”

AW: Yes, my son cut my hair in “Dumbass.” I don’t even make those connections, but now that you say it, I’m shocked to realize: Yes, I did that. Very often people have to remind me, because I never really make those connections. They’re under my mind but not intentionally connected.

DT: You think very big. Human Flowis big, the Unilever Series sunflower seeds exhibition at the Tate is big, your installations are big, the backpack piece was big. Can you talk about your notion of scale?

AW: As human beings. we are lucky enough to have imagination. Our hearts can be so big, we can imagine beyond the physical boundary. Humans are so beautiful in that. That’s why we have poetry, we have music, we have art, because we really think big. We can look at ourselves from another planet. Only human beings have this kind of self-examination to reflect ourselves in a much, much larger condition. I think this is a quality when we talk about humanity. We always have to ignore the differences but find humanity as one. That’s something we all need to protect, just like immigrants. It’s our spiritual environment to protect the dignity of human beings, and only by doing that will we have some moment of peace, of understanding, and to have the real true relations with nature. We appreciate this moment that God or whoever gave to us as human beings. This is really such a privilege to be a human being, but very often we’re not conscious about it. We’re always distracted by some difficulty or some kind of responsibility. There are so many reasons in life to make you look in a mirror. Just look at yourself. You would love it, you would say: Oh my God, everything is in this body. We are all so amazing. It seems everything is prepared for us, but we may also finish this off fast.

DT: Let’s talk about the Internet, which you use a lot. You Instagram a lot, you tweet a lot. On your website you frequently refer to netizens. But don’t you find the Internet a double-edged sword, especially when you speak of being distracted?

AW: It’s true. You can tweet, but tweets are not real writing. Profound writing takes time, being careful with words, to put all the energy in something, one paragraph, one chapter is so profound and beautiful. So, yes, we are very much benefited by sharing information and knowledge and free association and expressing ourselves free and fast, but at the same time we’ve lost a moment of solitude to be alone, to think something over, and to give more time to something which always can be very profound, so it is a double-edged sword, as you say.

DT: You’re doing a number of installations around New York to support Human Flow. What’s the relationship between the installations and the film?

AW: I did many installations and artworks while shooting this film. Maybe I had ten museum shows, and all had a refugee topic. Some are two-dimensional, some are three-dimensional installations, some are films, or photographs, or wallpaper or objects. By every means necessary I want this to bring attention to what I’m doing and also to what I see happening in the world.

Always I want to establish a true relationship between me and the world. It’s not really for anybody else. It’s a really selfish way as an artist to re-establish the true relations between the so-called yourself and the world outside of you. Film is also an extension of that, but they’re all [i.e., the installations and artworks] a little different, because they all adjust for a different audience. Film could be the most popular audience because films look so real and the language is easy to understand and it generates emotion and knowledge.

At the same time, I’m doing a large project called “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.” It’s a Robert Frost poem. It talks about who you want to fence out and what you’re really fencing. It’s an interesting topic. We talk about water, territory, fences, and in such a beautiful, beautiful capital of immigrants, New York City. The whole energy and color and imagination of this city is because it’s so mixed. It’s never one type. You never feel you’re a foreigner here, you’re just one of the varieties. I spent ten years here and I love the city. If I can contribute something to this city, I would be very proud.

It has to do with my understanding of what this city is about, so dealing with immigration and this refugee condition is what I think is the right work. We make about three hundred pieces through all five boroughs, at every level, from subway station to bus station to some landmark locations such as Washington Square or Central Park, or right in front of the Plaza Hotel two blocks away from Trump Tower. All those locations deal with the city’s element and the people who are using the city who experience these works. It will start October 11.

DT: You lived here in the ’80s. Do you find that the city has changed a lot?

AW: The city started to change a lot in the early ’90s when Giuliani became mayor. There was a lot of gentrification, but it was also a time for globalization, so it wasn’t just him. Time changed in the ’90s.

DT Do you address that in the installations? Gentrification causes its own sort of migration.

AW: It’s very hard to address it, but we have a lot of poetry, statistics and writing on the posters in the bus stations. It’s true, but it’s nature. Somewhere becomes gentrified, somewhere else becomes abandoned.

DT: I know that you say the film establishes your relationship with the problem, but I see it as a call to action. What action would you like people to take?

AW: Once you make something like this, you have one hope. I want people to see it. They don’t have to like it, they can criticize it, but at least they should see it. There’s something to see and to learn from it.

Human Flow opens in New York and L.A. on Oct. 13 via Amazon Studios and Participant Media. Click here for theatre listings, tickets and trailer. The author thanks Susan Norget of Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview. This interview is published here courtesy of Director Talk.Copyright © Director Talk 2017