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'Human Flow': Ai Wei Wei's doc is about more than the refugee crisis — it's about our humanity

Still from the film
Still from the film "Human Flow," by director Ai Wei Wei.
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Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has long been critical of the Chinese government and censorship there.

In 2011, he was arrested, his passport taken and he was kept on house arrest. But even while he was confined to his home, Ai Weiwei was not deterred from creating art and speaking out.

In 2015, his passport was returned, and he took his art to a new level -- a feature length documentary tracking the worldwide refugee crisis called "Human Flow," currently in select theaters. 


"Human Flow" had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and its North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, where he sat down with The Frame to discuss the film.

The movie takes an on the ground look at the migrant crisis in 23 countries -- including the Middle East, Africa, Europe and Mexico. It’s an especially timely film, given that President Trump ran on a platform that was anti-immigrant and anti-refugee.

Still from the film
Still from the film "Human Flow," by director Ai Wei Wei.
Participant Media

Ai Weiwei actually began working on the research for this project back in 2014, while still under house arrest. But he first sent a team to Iraq to visit refugee camps there:

The act of starting of this film after I got my passport back actually from the Chinese authority so I can start travel. I settled myself in Berlin and then I heard some refugees already come to Berlin. So I went to Lesbos, Greece to see how would they come on the shore.

Lesbos, Greece is an island off the coast of Turkey where a lot of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa end up after harrowing journeys by boat. Thousands of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other war torn nations have made the journey since 2015.

I met them and the moment I start to use my iPhone to shoot because it's not prepared. I was vacation with my son and girlfriend. So that moment I decide I have to make a film about this because what I have seen is unbelievable. And you see women, children jump out of a boat and they're totally foreign. They're from Syria and nobody understands their language, their religion, and even customs. I was shocked and I said to myself I want to find out who they are, why they have to give up their land and come to here.

Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei and Frame host John Horn at the Telluride Film Festival on September 3, 2017.
Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei and Frame host John Horn at the Telluride Film Festival on September 3, 2017.
Dana Richardson

Ai Weiwei has long been interested in political prisoners and the plight of people whose lives have been disrupted by war, natural disasters and economic issues. As an artist, he says he had no choice but to get involved and educate himself about this global issue.

The only way I feel is to get involved as individual artists. Get myself involved to learn about a situation because nobody can understand the total picture. To be in those locations, to study the history, to study very different kind of refugees. So it's education of myself to know that. Because, as artist, I have to know it. ... This film is as a result of this learning process.

This film isn’t the first time Ai Weiwei has created art based on the migrant crisis. He wrapped the Berlin Opera House in 14,000 used life jackets. A new work, "Law of the Journey" in Prague, is a large inflatable boat with human figures inside, a kind of replica of the scenes he witnessed in Greece. Through his work and life, Ai Weiwei has gained a very personal understanding about what it means to be a refugee:

Personally, when I grew up, I have the experience of being in a refugee-like situation because my father was poet, exiled. And 20 years I grew up in very remote area, our family being pictured as somewhat dangerous, different. My father is a poet, so for 20 years he's forbidden to even write a line. So you can see how wrong those kind of pictures can really affect a society as a result China has been punished its own best mind to make China like today still without freedom of speech, still doesn't stand up for standard human rights practice.

Still from the film
Still from the film "Human Flow," by director Ai Wei Wei.
Participant Media

Though the film is not overtly political,  it’s clear that Ai Weiwei's message in the film is that we must remember our humanity and that some people who are not welcomed on any shore not surprisingly turn to extremism:

Doesn't matter [if]  you're west, you're right or left, people still avoid to really find out what made those refugees a refugee. But rather than trying to find some tactics, local tactics to shut the door and keep them out of sight and say, That's your problem -- solve it. It's not related to understanding of human condition and human rights and the human dignity. I think by doing that, it's very, very dangerous especially for the United States and Europe. Not bearing responsibility and not leading the world to give important message -- "humans as one." We have to help each other otherwise the condition can become much worse.

Watching "Human Flow" is a truly immersive experience. With cameras on the ground, Ai Weiwei reveals intimate details about the suffering -- hunger, lack of shelter, no health care -- that millions of refugees must endure. Using drones, Ai Weiwei shows the vastness of refugee camps that in many instances are larger than big cities:

Drones [are] a technology. Any new technology is questionable morally or aesthetically because it's never established that view of the view of the god or the birds. But today, the drones are so common. ... But when we use it, we very clearly understand to really try to limit... not to abuse that type of the drone. It's a very special visual effect to give very essential analyzing about human beings' relations in relation to nature, their location and the mass movement. And also to give some kind of detached feeling about when we're a little bit further, and we're a little bit from very above. You know, humans all look just like ants or some little box there. So that can give us a very special angle to make a film in this kind of scale. And also can help us to wrap up and then jump into another location because this film comes to so many locations. You always need to take a deep breath so the drones give us that chance.

Ai Weiwei hopes that by seeing the film, audiences can get a better understanding of the refugee crisis, and that they can also take action on what they have witnessed:

Understanding of humanity is above all. It's about, We're all the same. If someone being hurt, we are being hurt. So that kind of ideology has to be shared only by doing that have we had compassion for other people. We lost our home too. So that kind of ideology has to be shared only by doing so that have we have compassion for other people. We can tolerate something we'd normally think is so so foreign and so different. Someone lost their education, you feel, Oh, that could be my son. Some women have no place to deliver their children, you will say, That could be my mom or my wife. So those things we have to sounds very simple but we have to repeatedly talk about that. That makes us better as a society.

To hear John Horn's conversation with Ai Weiwei, click on the player above.

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