The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is internationally recognized for his massive, often provocative art installations. And yet, he’s spent most of the past decade under house arrest for his persistent defense of free expression.
But as soon as his passport was reissued by the Chinese government a couple of years ago, Ai embarked on possibly his most ambitious project yet: documenting the global refugee crisis. The result of his cinematic journey, Human Flow, is out this week.
Ai spoke with NPR about his new documentary, which aims to describe what’s become the largest forced migration since World War II — 65 million people displaced by war, famine and climate change.
But instead of following the experience of any one group of asylum seekers, Ai takes a more expansive tack, traveling to 23 different countries over the stretch of a year. Employing drone views, the film charts the journeys of divergent populations, including Syrians, Kenyans, Kurds, Palestinians and the Rohingya.
It’s a theme that also hits home for the Chinese dissident, having grown up in isolation with his poet father, who was exiled from China.
“Being a refugee is much more than a political status,” Ai says. “As a human being, if you sit in front of any of them, if you look in their eyes, you immediately understand who they are.”
On seeing himself as a refugee
I was born after the year my father was criticized as an enemy of the people. In China, that’s the biggest crime you can have. My father is simply a poet, a very well-known poet. So he had been exiled [and] I grew up with him in a very remote area, the desert actually, in northwest China. So I personally experienced how people have been mistreated and, of course, also really punished, for the crime he never really committed. So I share this kind of sentiment of people who miss everything and lost everything.
On what it means to be a refugee
Being a refugee is much more than a political status. It is the most pervasive kind of cruelty that can be exercised against a human being. By depriving a person of all forms of security, the most basic requirements of a normal life, by cruelly placing that person of inhospitable host countries that do not want to receive this refugee. You are forcibly robbing this human being of all aspects that would make life, not just tolerable, but meaningful in many ways.
On what his film adds to the discussion on the refugee crisis
As a human being, if you sit in front of any of them, if you look in their eyes, you immediately understand who they are. They are just like your brothers or your sisters or your own children or your grandma. It’s nothing different. It’s only something you can see from their eyes. They have courage. They can give up everything, just for safety or shelter, or to see their children’s future maybe will change because they take this action.
On his feelings for people who fear migrants
I have great sympathy for them, for the lacking of knowledge, and as a result, lacking of the understanding of humanity, and also [how they] underestimate their own possibilities to help another person, which can be considered as the highest ritual in many, many religions — just helping someone. Never to say this is too big or it’s not my problem. I do have a great, deepest sympathy for people who don’t have a clear vision about the world and about themselves, [and] don’t understand the value of life.