'Humanity Is Subjective'

A conversation with Ai Weiwei about perpetual migration, the tragedy of exile, and the power of plain cinematic language.

Chinese visual artist Ai Weiwei participates in the BUILD Speaker Series to discuss his film 'Human Flow'
Evan Agostini / Invision / AP

“Being a refugee … is the most pervasive kind of cruelty that can be exercised against a human being.” So says an interviewee in the Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei’s new documentary, Human Flow, bringing to life the stakes of a crisis that has displaced more than 65 million people worldwide.

A displaced person himself who is living in exile in Berlin, Ai involves viewers in these stakes, implicating them by virtue of collective passivity. He also suggests that the crisis is by no means a contemporary phenomenon, and that it is endemic to the human condition: As if by osmosis, often forced by war and persecution, people have fled their homes and sought refuge across the globe since time immemorial.

The film evokes this sense of perpetual migration with lyrical imagery and a discursive approach to storytelling. Children run in circles around their cramped shack in a refugee camp in Malaysia; trash swirls across another camp in Lebanon; rings of fire burn in the oil fields of Mosul. Spanning more than 23 countries and 40 of the world’s largest refugee camps, Human Flow captures victims of conflict in the difficult holding patterns that have come to define their lives. The documentary is at once an intimate, on-the-ground travelogue and a sweeping cinematic experience.

Human Flow illustrates both the vastness and the individuality of the refugee problem: The film’s final shot shows what can only be described as a graveyard of lifejackets on the shores of Greece. As the camera, tethered to a drone, rises high above, the piles of thousands of lifejackets begin to assume the vague shapes of continents on a globe.

I spoke with Ai about his approach to representing vulnerable subjects, shooting in war zones, and the film’s sense of poetry. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Buder: As depicted in Human Flow, refugee camps are often places devoid of human dignity. In many instances, you were filming people who were enduring—or had recently endured—the worst moments of their lives. Did you have ethical concerns about the way you portrayed your subjects?

Ai: Humanity is subjective. It can be seen in poetry, as I’ve included in the film. It can be seen in a landscape. I wanted to establish a relationship between a tragic human crisis and a historical, larger context.

Buder: Throughout the film, you interact with refugees onscreen. Did you have personal relationships with the subjects?

Ai: Not much. But I felt I had a profound relationship to the subjects because I was a refugee for most of my lifetime. My father was exiled [from China] when I was born. He was a poet. He was forced to go into hard labor camps and was beaten and insulted for 10 years. Today, I am still forced out of my country because of the physical danger of being in China. But in reality, I didn’t establish any kind of deep personal relations with [refugees]. They were casual. They all naturally accepted me as part of them. I didn’t need to explain myself. We made jokes and spent time together.

I didn’t originally decide to include myself and my camera crew in the film. A lot of times when we were there, different crews shot some of my activities, but I didn’t [ask them to]. In fact, I clearly told them that I didn’t want to be in the film. At the late editing stage, however, the editor, Niels [Pagh Andersen], who is someone I respect a lot, found some footage that he [wanted to include]. Because the crew never intended to include these shots in the film, it was strangely shot. I feel it’s interesting because it’s funny and ridiculous. It pulls back from the too-serious view of the crisis and goes into a personal level.

Buder: On that note, I’m sure you captured a lot of harrowing, very personal footage. During the editing process, you must have pared down some of the more emotionally charged moments, because they are used sparingly. How did you make these decisions?

Ai: We asked ourselves why we were making the film in the first place. There is a lot of footage online and in the news [of refugees]. But we think our film does something very different. It is cinematic. We [shot] 900 hours of footage, and we wanted it to [provide] a better understanding of the refugee crisis in global conditions, with context. We didn’t want footage that was too disturbing or too emotional or private or personal. Rather, we wanted the texture and fragments of everyday life. For a refugee, ordinary life is dramatic already.

Buder: Those textured fragments lend the film a timeless quality. You also chose to include poetry in the film, which contributed to the feeling of transcending time and space.

Ai: That’s what we wanted. It’s not a current crisis. Since humans have existed, humans have migrated. It’s a major force of civilization. That’s how we have become so intelligent and mixed. And more tolerant.

A woman in Kutupalong-Camp in Ukhia, Bangladesh (Amazon Studios)

Buder: Human Flow was a massive logistical undertaking. You filmed in more than 40 refugee camps and 23 countries—many of them conflict zones. What were some specific production challenges you encountered?

Ai: It was difficult in terms of organization. In many of these nations, it’s hard to establish any kind of connection or trust. It’s dangerous, too. I worked with many crews I had never met. We just communicated by phone or internet. I would send in samples of the kind of imagery I wanted, and they’d send back an example, which they’d often have to redo. In many cases, I had very little control, such as in Iraq; it’s a war zone, so you have to use combat journalists who have their own working habits. We worked in areas where ISIS was active and violence was very common. We couldn’t access Aleppo because the bombing was too heavy, and certain politicians would not let us interview them.

Buder: When you could control the camera, what were your aesthetic parameters?

Ai: Giving some extra seconds to a shot is so necessary. I let the camera be still. I put it on a tripod and didn’t let it move. It was so necessary; you need a little attention, a little patience. You have to build trust and understanding with the viewer. I always tell my photographers, “Do not just hold the camera.” Leave the camera there. Let it run. Don’t try to zoom or pan. I like plain cinematic language. I want to give the viewer a chance to create their own judgment. Otherwise, you’re telling the viewer how to see the movie. You don’t want to [impose] too much intention upon the shot. I like to be very objective. In documentary, you need to leave space between the creator and viewer of the film.

Buder: Is there any hope in evolving a less strict view of geopolitical borders on an international level?

Ai: There is hope, but only if we can get our act together. This is a human-created problem. Humans created it, so we must solve it. The [military-industrial complex] benefits from other people’s misfortune. This is today’s politics. If we don’t act, there will be more violence and casualties.