“I didn’t want to just make a pure documentary,” says Ai Weiwei, as if anyone would ever have suggested otherwise. China’s best known contemporary artist and most outspoken political dissident was looking a bit bleary-eyed at a Washington D.C. hotel last month after a whirlwind press tour to promote his latest project, an idiosyncratic feature-length documentary about the global migration crisis, titled Human Flow. (Either to even the score, or just to amuse himself, he surreptitiously posted photos of every reporter who interviewed him that day, including me, on Instagram.)
The theme of migration is a personal one for Ai. Like many of the people featured in his movie, he was forced to leave his homeland for political reasons. He moved to Germany to reunite with his family in 2015, after Chinese authorities unexpectedly returned his passport, which they had confiscated for four years. Once very much in the government’s favor—he helped design the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Olympics—he faced increasing legal pressure for his outspoken criticism of the ruling Communist party and was at one point detained for 81 days at an unknown location. (The story of Ai’s legal troubles was the subject of the 2012 documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, directed by Alison Klayman.)
The newer film is global in scope, filmed in 23 countries and capturing everything from camps in Iraq to Rohingya villages in Bangladesh to the beaches of Greece to the U.S.-Mexico border.
I asked Ai if national identity is still something that’s important to him. “For me, I don’t have a nationality,” he says. “I am not accepted by my own homeland. They see me as an enemy or a potential enemy, only because I care about the conditions there and I care about the people there.”
Still, he says he would return home if he could. “I speak the language. I know the locations so well. My mom is still there. I have so many friends there,” he says. “But it’s not likely, because the situation is really getting very, very tough. Many of my friends are still in jail.”
If Ai is scathing in his criticism of his homeland, he’s hardly less critical of Western countries. “What surprised me in making the film was people who were so privileged in democratic societies, in the so-called free world, who are so indifferent to human suffering,” he says. “To live so comfortably while other people are in desperate situations, that surprised me. It’s not a refugee problem. It’s a human crisis, and it includes the people that can help but don’t help.”
Of course, for all the solidarity Ai may feel with the subjects of his film, he seems to acknowledge that for all the real adversity he’s faced, his celebrity makes him somewhat privileged among political asylees. In one somewhat awkward exchange in the movie, he and a young man in a camp in the Balkans jokingly trade passports, the subject of the scene being that one man lives in a studio in Berlin and the other in a tent.
Human Flow opens with a shot of a migrating bird floating above the ocean, then cuts to a raft carrying refugees across the Mediterranean. If the film has a central argument, it’s that we ought to look at human migration as a normal and natural process and should view the borders and laws put in the way of that process as unnatural.
The day we spoke was just after the Trump administration released the latest edition of its travel ban and the Islamophobic, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party was elected to the German parliament, the first far-right party to do so since World War II.
“Trump, the rightist movement in Germany, Brexit, all those are just symptoms of our past,” says Ai. “The past is just a ghost still haunting us. Every shocking piece of news we have today is never really created today. There’s always something in the past that’s similar.”
Though he chose subject matter that’s very much in the headlines, Ai’s movie is deeply strange, varying wildly in tone and style from one section to another. Long wordless passages of serene and heartbreaking images of human migration, much of it shot by drone, are reminiscent of globalist head-trips like Koyaanisqatsi and Baraka. A stunning overhead shot of orange lifejackets abandoned on a beach is reminiscent of Ai’s porcelain sculptures of river crabs. But these passages are intercut with encounters with refugees filmed by Ai himself on his iPhone as well as straightforward and slightly clunky interviews with experts and officials, including United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi and Princess Dana Firas of Jordan. The central political players of the crisis are never even mentioned by name: There’s no whisper of the names Trump, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, or Bashar al-Assad. (I asked Ai if this was intentional, and he told me he simply couldn’t get interviews with high-ranking political leaders.)
The film is slow-moving and discursive, and Ai has an eye for poignant vignettes such as one about a tiger that apparently wandered through the smuggling tunnels into Gaza and now lives in a cage, the ultimate unwanted migrant. Periodically, newspaper headlines and statistics flash across the screen, but overall, the film feels less like a comprehensive exploration of the refugee crisis than a direct transmission from Ai Weiwei’s brain at the time he was exploring the refugee crisis.
“It comes from the narrow mind of one individual who is quite naïve and trying to interpret the situation, meeting people and shooting images,” Ai told me. The director himself appears frequently in the film. We see him wrapping blankets around new arrivals on the Greek island of Lesbos, chasing a pack of goats with his iPhone camera though Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, and dancing giddily with a crowd on a street corner in Gaza.
“My part in the play is like a clown,” he tells me. “It’s important to make people know you can become involved in such a large issue. All you need is curiosity to start to do something.”