Sometime last year the UN reported that the population of displaced people around the world surpassed 65 million. It’s a hard number to know what to do with. It is akin to the population of a country like France or the U.K. and it’s also a solid estimate for the total number of fatalities suffered in World War II. It is one out of 113 people. It represents “immense human suffering,” according to a UNHCR press release that went around at the time.
Even harder to put a finger on is an idea of the refugee. Newspaper-worthy events from wars to massive construction projects create them and so they persist, sometimes for generations and often in the literally marginal corners of society, near borders and between fences, permanently adjacent to the narrative of whatever event birthed them. What deliberately unfun holidays UNHCR’s annual World Refugee Day and phrases like “global refugee crisis” try to accomplish is wrest those figures away from the temperamental and generally irresolvable politics of, say, the Syrian Civil War, and into the more palatable politics of this is clearly fucking awful.
The latest entrant into this conversation is a two hour-plus documentary directed by Ai Weiwei, the conceptual artist and activist behind extensive porcelain constructions and deconstructions, a surveillance project viewed by some 5.2 million people and, with some regret, Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium. Titled Human Flow, Ai’s feature debut manages to achieve the visual and political massiveness of Picasso’s Guernica, a mural of frenzied, scared images of a century slowly disconnecting. Shot with iPhones and from drone cameras, Human Flow eschews the small case study-intimacy common among journalist-driven doc fare. Bopping around the fragmented borders of some 23 countries, including the U.S., Human Flow is a work of extraordinary visual art as a well as an agitprop set-piece.
I had the chance to briefly chat with Ai when his press tour stopped by New York. Below is our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.
Nonfics: Really epic stuff. Intimate portraits, refugee camps shot from drones. Tell me about how the idea of documenting the global refugee crisis came to you.
Ai Weiwei: The idea started when I was still in detention, when I could not move because of my passport situation. So, I sent two of my team members to a refugee camp in Iraq to create images that were like portraits, shot one by one. We did hundreds of portraits, we did interviews, we did single-shots of each person. It was the first time I approached the topic.
And not but one year later, I got my passport back, so I could travel to Germany where I settled, and I had heard that some refugees from those camps had come to Germany, so I paid them a visit in Berlin and then decided to go to [the island of] Lesbos, in Greece, which was the first time I saw refugees coming to the shore. I wanted to try to capture the feeling there, but at the same time have a complete study of refugees, so we put together a research team that not only put together the factual study of its history but used literature, poetry and art and studied how that could relate to the whole human history. A Human Flow.
There is a lot of poetry in the film, sort of hovering over the edges.
We did a study of poetry, of what kinds of poetry was relevant to the situation. What kind would add power to the images we were using.
Tell me about that title, Human Flow.
As soon as we had started, I called it Human Flow. I see the refugee community is not just a local or regional problem but a global situation. I understand the scale and the topic seems much more than anyone can cope with. But I believe, with some effort, some strong determination, that we can get as much as we can.
How did you approaching putting the footage together?
The material involved 23 nations and 40 refugee camps and 600 hours of interviews and 900 hours of other footage. I just focused on filming, and from the very beginning we already knew what the film is going to look like. The teams approached every scene with clear instructions, what kind of story or image we needed to have. We used drones, we used iPhones, we used all kinds of filming equipment. We didn’t use any [quick] pans or have anything with me holding the camera.
One of the last locations in the film is the U.S.-Mexican border. What drew you to that conflict in particular?
I don’t look at refugee problems as regional problems at all, because I think that, after globalization, all regional problems are no longer regional. They always reflect some other powers or interests or greater profit at work. I had been drawn to look at the U.S., since its involvement was felt everywhere else. If you look at the Iraq War, it’s really horrifying what is still going on there. Same with American involvement with Afghanistan or the Syrian condition. And when we started the project, this was when Trump had begun talking about the beauty of a wall and started calling Mexicans criminals and rapists. This made me feel that I had to put this existing border in the film because it really shows how strongly Mexicans have supported the U.S. economy. The border had always been open and that human flow had always been natural. You have a rich country and a not so rich country and they need each other. The United States takes advantage of that through cheap labor. Now the U.S. is trying to cut that kind of relation and push people away. There are a lot of people who never had an identity outside of that.
Right now, you’ve put together another art piece riffing on the proposed wall between the U.S. and Mexico, the public art installation “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.”
We have about 300 locations in the city to set up some kind of discussion, to create a kind of consciousness about borders and territory and, as we all know, almost everyone in America are all children of immigrants at one point of this history, And I think people should continue to honor, accordingly, any refugees with the courage and honor to come to this land.
What do you make of the turn away from that kind of liberal acceptance?
There were only 17 border walls in the world 30 years ago — now you see over 70 nations have fences or border walls in between them. Many, many nations that have had histories of accepting refugees are now being pushed to not give any mercy or help and that, I think, is quite shameful. And I think it is happening because of the selfishness in human nature. Cowardice and selfishness.
Earlier this year, you said that “film has lost its advantage in showing daily reality.” Expand on that.
For quite some time, movies have been seen as entertainment, which involves the movie industry trying to create things that are specifically attractive to an audience to service a big commercial industry. But very often the works don’t have any context outside of being funny or cheerful or anything outside of the possibility of trying to attract an audience. And this is not just true of film but also of art, this kind of rampant commercialism. The lacking-of-context is a refusal to try to encourage conversation about real problems or recognizing reality with any kind of aesthetic or moral judgement. [Movies] need to make some kind of argument about our real lives.
Parts of Human Flow can feel detached from those real lives. The shots up in the air, humans so small they squiggle like ants.
We set up the drone cams for several reasons. We needed to provide a detached view of the conditions, which can themselves appear indifferent, when looking down from above. This, itself, becomes a metaphor for the very human nature of the problem. Still, they become part of nature when seen from above. From that far away, the human almost disappears in the landscape.