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.