Venice: 'Human Flow' Director Ai Weiwei on the "Moral Challenge" of the Refugee Crisis

Courtesy of Participant Media and AC Films
'Human Flow'

The Chinese artist and activist questions why so much media attention is given to victims of the Houston floods and so little to victims of Bangladesh floods.

With more people displaced now than in the time period after World War II, the global refugee crisis is in the headlines nearly every day.

Since few people comprehend the scale of the problem, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei went out to film an immersive portrait of the crisis. What began as a small project to tell individual stories ultimately became a massive documentary for the first-time feature filmmaker, filming across 23 countries with a crew of more than 200 people.

The film is already being touted as a major awards contender in Venice before its later release in theaters and on Amazon.

Weiwei tells the stories of refugees fleeing war, hunger, persecution, poverty and the consequences of climate change — a fight for life and transformation in the most dire circumstances. He takes his camera — shooting cinema-verite style with everything from a mobile phone to a drone — across Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Gaza, to camps in France, Greece, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Thailand and Malaysia, to ships on the Mediterranean Sea and to border walls in Hungary, the USA and Macedonia.

Weiwei, who has explored the refugee crisis in his work before, turned to film when he saw that the constant bombardment of news stories was not effective in telling the whole picture.

"We adjust ourselves to see everything as either 'it affects me directly' or 'it doesn’t,' " he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So we cut our sympathy like we cut a cake to count how many people can come to the party.”

“In this film, we have a clear agenda to make a study of the very difficult complex situation and to have a better view about humanity, human rights and about the chance for humans to survive as one,” he continues. “Human rights always need to be defended everywhere, and by doing that, we benefit everybody.”

While Human Flow shows how much needs to be done and helps clear up misconceptions about refugees, it is not meant to spell out a political solution.

“I’m not so optimistic,” says Weiwei. “I couldn’t find the solution. I can see what is a possibility if we have awareness about the situation, and we can speak right to the politicians and ask them to stop obvious problems like war. Stop the war. Stop selling weapons to those people who could potentially hurt others. Nuclear is still there, why do we need nuclear today? Why does the news not talk about nuclear?”

The filmmaker also sees a clear problem in media representation and individual responses to crisis. “Why do we have the news talking about Houston flooding for weeks? Why not talk about the flooding in Bangladesh that killed thousands of people at the same time?” Weiwei asks of the reaction to floods across Bangladesh, India and Nepal that already have left millions homeless and have taken thousands of lives this year. “Why? Is anybody willing to answer that? How do we look at ourselves doing things like that in the 21st century, with such an open media society?”

“I think America can become very regional,” says Weiwei. “The kind of sentence used during elections, ‘America First,’ it is so out of date to even have that kind of sentence. That would create an America that is not forward but backward. These kinds of separations, the ideas to separate people, are so naive. It isn’t the reality, and it can only create more crisis.”

“America is a unique land because we are mixed. We are immigrants,” he says. “We have been pushed by reason to come so far to establish a new nation, which accepts difference and supports very basic human dignity. And that is the foundation. But if we don’t watch out, we will gradually lose that foundation, and then there will be something very unpredictable.”

Weiwei, who has suffered much personal tragedy as a political dissident and human-rights activist, admits that the suffering witnessed in the film was often too much, even for him.

“It’s too much, when you turn your face away from someone who needs help,” he said. “It’s always too much. You know you can’t help. But if you help this one, you can help another one and then another one. It’s such a moral challenge.”

But the message of Human Flow is hopeful one: that viewers will recognize that humanity exists as one and that the first step in the solution is awareness. “It’s never too late to do something,” says Weiwei. “We are still here. The freedom, the sense of democracy and freedom takes each generation to polish that and to defend it. You never get a permanent condition. So maybe we forget about that, then we have to learn. I hope the lesson is not too heavy.”