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Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei Talks Migrant Crisis Doc ‘Human Flow’ Ahead of Venice Premiere

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei will world premiere his documentary “Human Flow,” about massive human displacement and migration caused by the current refugee crisis, at the upcoming Venice Film Festival. Ahead of its Lido launch, Ai spoke to Variety about his first feature-length work, shot over more than a year in 23 countries and produced by Participant Media and AC Films, which Amazon Studios will release in select theaters on Oct. 13 in the U.S., followed by a global rollout. 

Your work as a visual artist has called attention to human rights issues, primarily in China. Simply put: can you tell me how it came about that the plight of the world’s refugees has become a central subject of your recent work?

I grew up during the Cultural Revolution. After I was born, my father, a poet, was sent into exile for over 20 years. During that period, he was prohibited from writing and subjected to hard labor. Hundreds of thousands of intellectuals were compelled to the same fate — or worse — during that time. I grew up under those circumstances.

I spent 12 years in the United States during the 1980s. In 1993, I returned to China and lived there for over 20 years, during which China transformed into a capitalist society. In this period of globalization, I became very involved with a wide range of topics — architecture, curation and underground publishing — in an attempt to become part of the change. I was also introduced to the internet and the vibrant discussions that existed in the nascent years before China tightened its control. Those activities led me to frequent run-ins with the authorities — including arrests, imprisonment, travel restrictions, fines, police brutality and exile.

I became involved with the subject of refugees because I am conscious of how these people have been mistreated, neglected and displaced. I know what it is like to be viewed as an outcast. The current-day displacement of people is the largest since the end of World War II. It’s a global issue and one which tests the resolve of developed nations to uphold human rights. I am eager to understand how those values — which form the foundation of democracy and freedom — are protected and how they have been violated.

To become involved — to take a personal journey to better understand the historical context, the current situation, and what is possible in the future — is the most natural act for an artist like me.

China has been accused of being reluctant to get involved in this crisis, though it provides economic aid. How do you feel about China not opening its borders to refugees?

Refugees have the choice of where they want to go. China is so disconnected from the current situation in the Middle East, both historically and geographically. Currently, there are areas in southwest China — bordering Myanmar and Vietnam — with settlements hosting tens of thousands of recent refugees, though it is not widely announced.

“Human Flow” is your first feature-length documentary. You had previously done art pieces on the refugee crisis, including a performance in which you posed as a dead infant who washed ashore in Turkey. Can you tell me about the creative challenge of working on a film with such a grand scale?

We did not begin with ambitious intentions, but we gradually became more involved. Initially, we only wanted to document what we had seen and experienced. It quickly became apparent that this was not enough and we needed to know more about the geopolitics and the historical context of the refugee crisis. That research lead us to the wider global condition — not just refugees of war, but also those displaced by economic and environmental factors.

To make this film you’ve also contended with the logistical challenge of shooting in some 40 refugee camps in 23 countries over the course of more than a year. Had you ever undertaken a project of such scope before? 

The challenge of the production was overwhelming. As with many documentaries, it happened through a combination of intuition, passion and coincidence. Documentaries are important because what is captured is unrepeatable due to shifting conditions. Documentaries can be understood to be a more honest record of what took place.

Organizing such a massive logistical effort, while filming in the most difficult locations — war zones and areas of political and economic instability — was a daily challenge. This film became possible due to the efforts of our experienced and passionate team — who share the same belief and artistic vision, and who brought with them great skill and discipline.

Was it easy for you to find the financing for “Human Flow”?

We began producing the film with our own funding. We shared our vision with others and gained their trust and emotional involvement. Eventually, two other parties joined us in financing the production. We never seek investment, but instead we find life partners. We attract people who feel passionate about our projects.

Starting from the title, the meaning of the word “human” seems to be key in “Human Flow.” A voiceover in the trailer says: “It’s going to be a big challenge to recognize that the world is shrinking, and people from different religions, different cultures, are going to have to learn to live with each other.” Do you believe humanity can attain this type of co-existence globally?

We intentionally emphasized “human” in the title to highlight human dignity, which includes the essential right to free movement . We also wanted to highlight our responsibility to extend compassion and mercy. We believe and trust in humanity and every effort of expression is an attempt to reinforce this understanding. Only by doing so can we come together as one.

Your work has been characterized as being at the intersection of artistic practice and social activism. What were you aiming to achieve with “Human Flow,” both as an artist and an activist?

Every work is a critical examination of whether my expression is valid and can reach the necessary audience. Every effort made is an attempt at exploring and extending the boundaries of my artistic expression — to establish a new dialogue with the world.

“Human Flow” will be playing in movie theaters and also on Amazon, so it will have a wide reach. Do you think this type of distribution will help raise awareness?

For us, having “Human Flow” distributed in theaters and on Amazon is a new experience. They are platforms I have never used before and they have large cinephile audiences. I respect people who love stories and movies. Those people are trustworthy because they appreciate human narratives and emotions. Those are the people I want to be close to.

That the film will be released to a wide audience is an acknowledgement of the work. At the same time, I believe there are many ways to reach the audience —perhaps less formal and more direct. We will continue to extend our expression by any means necessary to reach them.

Is there a symbolic significance in the fact that “Human Flow” is premiering at Venice Film Festival in Italy, which is currently the main point of entry for refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe? 

I’m very proud to have the film premiere in a nation with a long history of contributions towards art, philosophy and film. Most importantly, Italy has been a beacon for many refugees on the other side of the sea, seeking the light and warmth of humanity. Italy has provided humanitarian support to so many who desperately seek safety and shelter. I’m grateful for this opportunity to show my film in this proud nation that still upholds the Western tradition of humanitarian values.

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