Human Flow: Interview with Chinese Artist-Activist Ai Weiwei

Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei’s new documentary, Human Flow, world premiered (in competition) at the 2017 Venice Film Fest.

Amazon Studios releases the socially relevant and timely docu in select theaters October 13.

Ai’s 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 says. “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.”

Best known 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.

After a government whitewashing in the wake of an 8.0 quake 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.  As a result, 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 crisi

Human Flow as ambitious film

Ai Weiwei: I was in detention until October 2015 with no chance to travel.  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.

Being poet-activist?

AW: 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.

Growing gap between the haves and the have-nots?

AW: 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.

Causing social change?

AW: It’s very important to do anything that’s necessary, like a documentary or something on the internet.  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 more profound understanding about many issues. A revolution doesn’t just drop down from the sky. A revolution comes from a long time of preparing.