When Ai Weiwei was detained by China’s secret police, the dissident artist imprisoned for 81 days for his supposed crimes against the state, the men tasked with interrogating him must have faced a unique challenge: He speaks in a stage whisper, murmuring with the flatness of someone to whom the world is always revealing itself. “They said I watched too many Hollywood movies,” he remembered. His voice barely went up a tick, even when imitating his furious jailers: “’This person is out of his mind! He’s talking about human rights and freedom of speech… can’t he just grow up?’”
The reasons for Ai’s release were as arbitrary as those for his incarceration, but perhaps he was set free because the Chinese government realized that he was fundamentally inextricable from his ideals. Born into exile during the Cultural Revolution, Ai was displaced before he even had a home; he didn’t need Western media, or to live in New York City from 1981 to 1993, to appreciate that personhood should never be taken for granted.
If anything, his first-hand experience has taught him that film — the famous artist’s most frequently used medium — can’t expand the world for someone who needs to see it for themselves. Roger Ebert said that “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” but he neglected to mention that they’re not always great at sustaining it. With “Human Flow,” by far the most immense undertaking of his career, Ai Weiwei has made a movie that explores why that is, and what we can do about it.
At no point in Ai’s life has there been a more urgent need for real universal compassion than there is now, during the migrant crisis that has resulted from the greatest human displacement since World War II. At no point in Ai’s life has cinema seemed more inadequate as a tool to inspire that love and galvanize it into action — even the most well-intentioned efforts serve to remind us that windows are built into walls.
“I don’t have too much illusion about it,” Ai confessed to IndieWire during an interview in a midtown Manhattan conference room. “A film is a film. We all live in a shell we created, a shell formed by family and background and lifestyle… maybe culture protects us because we are so limited, because we are so self-less. It’s like a shell around our body — there’s no way that it can be easily penetrated or destroyed.” These are not the words you expect to hear from someone who just made a movie of staggering magnitude, one that spans 23 countries, 40 refugee camps, 200 crew members, 600 interviewees, and more than 900 hours of footage.
Since obtaining a passport in 2015 and leaving China for Berlin, Ai has been almost singleminded in his focus, the migrant crisis emerging as the central subject of his work. Haunted by what happens when the fluidity of civilization is dammed by the fixedness of our borders, the artist’s concern with free speech has evolved into a concern for free movement, resulting in major installations like “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” and “Law of the Journey,” a museum piece consisting of a 230-foot-long boat carrying 258 faceless refugees.
Now, as the situation worsens, more than 66 million people have been displaced from their homes, and the President of the United States is threatening to build a massive wall along the Mexican border, Ai has made his — perhaps anyone’s — most ambitious response to the crisis so far.
“Human Flow,” which Amazon will release across the United States over the course of the next few weeks, didn’t begin with such grand designs. On the contrary, it started quite small, with Ai traveling to the island of Lesbos with his iPhone in order to take a look at one of Europe’s major entry points for refugees. “I had to be there,” Ai said, “or else I would be speechless. I would not be entitled to talk about the situation because I just wouldn’t know it. I had to meet the people, I had to look at them face-to-face, ask them questions, make some jokes with them… it’s the only way to understand a situation. Otherwise I would be scared or mad or threatened for the rest of my life.”
The raw, “amateur” footage Ai shot there opens his new film, with the celebrity dissident — himself a refugee — seen hopping into the frigid waters and helping people towards the shore. Ai had so many questions. The first and most fundamental of them all: “What is a refugee?” The word was last defined by a multilateral U.N. treaty from 1951, and the artist was frustrated that it hadn’t been updated to accommodate for more contemporary crises (e.g. climate change). That question soon led to others. “What are the different types of refugees? How did we get here? What are the costs of helping — and of not helping?”
Propelled by his curiosity, Ai devoted the next year of his life to searching for answers. He traveled everywhere from Italy to Israel, from Serbia to Sweden. He met Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. He interviewed the Princess of Jordan, toured the Calais refugee camp that was known as “The Jungle,” and spoke to a group of smiling schoolgirls on the Gaza Strip (one studies Andy Warhol, another dreams of going on a cruise around the world). Where it was too dangerous for him to go himself, Ai dispatched his colleagues, one of whom returned with footage of the burning Iraqi oil fields that ISIS set on fire during their retreat — we have the luxury of calling these surreal images “otherworldly.” He discovered that the average migrant is displaced for 26 years, and that many of them still carry keys to the apartments and houses their families lived in two or three generations ago.
“Human Flow” runs for more than two hours, and there’s little evident reason for the trajectory that it takes; Ai doesn’t follow certain routes, or even track particular individuals from one scene to the next. Over time, however, the apparent randomness of this approach coheres into its own kind of order, as we recognize that these people are living without context, which means they aren’t really living at all. The fact that Ai chooses to focus on this profound sense of absence is what allows “Human Flow” to become more than the sum of its parts, more than just the most expansive infomercial ever made. Rather than arguing their humanity, Ai traces the shadow of our inhumanity. Rather than isolating dramatically compelling refugees and force-feeding us their backstories as if they were very special contestants on “American Idol,” Ai stresses their sameness.