Ai Weiwei on His Refugee Doc 'Human Flow,' Intolerance and Activism (Q&A)

Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Ai Weiwei in 'Human Flow'

The leading Chinese artist-activist lends a global perspective on the refugee crisis in his elegant new documentary.

In the opening moments of Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei's new documentary, Human Flow, he is seen on the beach in Lesbos, Greece, comforting refugees who have just made the perilous passage from Iraq in a boat brimming with desperate souls. It might strike some as disingenuous for an internationally renowned blue-chip artist to be rubbing shoulders with those who have nothing. But Ai has been here before.

His father, activist-poet Ai Qing, was denounced during a Communist purge in the mid-1950s and sent to a labor camp in a remote province when Ai was still a baby. "My father was exiled for 20 years," the artist said during a recent visit to Los Angeles. "Since I was born I've lived in conditions sometimes worse than these refugees. Morally I cannot understand human beings being sacrificed or put in this kind of dramatic situation."

Most famous for his design of the Beijing National Stadium ("The Bird's Nest"), a symbol of the 2008 Summer Olympics, Ai fell out of favor with the Chinese government when he criticized the rough handling of underprivileged citizens during the Games to accommodate foreign tourists. Following a government whitewashing in the wake of an 8.0 earthquake in Sichuan that same year, Ai and his team collected and documented the identities of 5,385 victims, most of them students, and faulted poor construction and lack of oversight. For his troubles, Ai was beaten by police and incarcerated.

Granted his freedom in 2015, he moved to Berlin, where he lives today. Beginning Oct. 13, his immigration themed, site-specific installation Good Fences Make Good Neighbors started appearing in New York City neighborhoods, coinciding with the release of his documentary, Human Flow, which was shot in more than 20 countries, presenting a global picture of the refugee crisis. He spoke with THR about his new film (which Amazon Studios released in select theaters Oct. 13), the cost of globalization and the coming revolution.

Human Flow is your most ambitious film to date. You cover several continents in otherworldly conditions. Why was this the right film for you now?

I was in detention until October 2015 without a chance to travel. So once I could travel, I had such curiosity to see what was really going on. The current refugees come from war tragedies. The casualties number a few hundred thousand people and it's right in front of the world and modern media. Daily, we see images of human bodies, of the town or city being destroyed. It doesn't seem real. It's more exaggerated than a Hollywood movie. That's one thing that surprised me. This was such a large flow.

Your father was a poet-activist, you are an artist-activist, is it simply the family business?

It comes from the essential human understanding of fairness and justice. Of course my father's experience maybe gave me an anchor about how important an intellectual discussion is, and how power is so afraid of art and the poet. Art has the possibility to defend the very essential rights. Once you speak out you make a lot of negative responses. They put you in jail, they beat you, they cause you injury and tear down your studio and put some kind of tax fine on you. All these things only make me stronger. They make me believe that my actions are really relevant. It takes such a powerful state to try to diminish my voice. Also, if you don't act, the danger will become stronger.

Do you feel there's a growing callousness among the "haves" toward the "have-nots"?

Callous about the celebration of globalization. And there's so much profit from the past few decades that rarely crosses boarders and rarely profits the people who are in already quite difficult positions. So on the one hand selling this freedom idea and at the same time not providing any helpful solutions for understanding the balance being disturbed. What are the consequences? To not be responsible for that is certainly a big mistake. It's the kind of mistake that will for years affect global politics. It's important to remember that many, many wars reflect a nation's interests, which are heightened in the weapons selling and profits and resources of conquered nations. 

Even with all the protests here in the past year, I'm not so sure it has affected policy. How do we effect change?

I think it's very important to do anything that's necessary, like a documentary or something on the internet, or just one thing. And those things, like weather, gradually change the temperature and will build some kind of movement. If you see things that are happening in Spain or Puerto Rico or Houston, all those things help people have a much more profound understanding about many issues. So things are preparing for a revolution. A revolution doesn't just drop down from the sky. A revolution comes from a long time of preparing.