Ai Weiwei on the global refugee crisis, the Chinese movie industry, and his new film

Ai Weiwei on the global refugee crisis, the Chinese movie industry, and his new film
Art Exhibition Of Artist Ai Weiwei At The Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Dusseldorf

Ai Weiwei at an opening of his exhibition at Dusseldorf’s art museum K20 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in May 2019. | Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Why China’s best-known artist — and director of the acclaimed 2017 film Human Flow — returned to the subject of migration for The Rest.

Ai Weiwei may be the most well-known Chinese artist of his generation, but that’s come at a cost. The sculptor, photographer, and installation artist — who collaborated with the architects who created the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics — has been openly critical of his home country’s government, particularly corruption and cover-ups. Short films and videos he’s made since 2003 frequently documented a changing Beijing and the social and cultural conditions under which its citizens live.


In 2011, Ai was arrested and held for 81 days without charge; in 2015, when he was finally permitted to leave China, he moved to Berlin, where he now lives with his family.


In recent years, Ai has turned his attention to feature filmmaking. His 2017 documentary Human Flow, which was shortlisted for an Oscar, documents the global refugee crisis across more than 20 countries, using aerial shots to create a sense in the audience of the enormity of the migration and conditions that refugees face.



Two faces from The Rest.
CPH:DOX
Two faces from The Rest.


But Ai and his team shot much more footage and interviews for Human Flow than they could use in one film, so they’ve followed it up with The Rest, which moves from the macroscopic to the microscopic. The Rest once again moves around the globe, but focuses on the faces and individual impact of the conditions that refugees often face. It is moving and sometimes very difficult to watch, but always focuses on dignity and the beauty of each human no matter their migration status.


The Rest premiered at Copenhagen’s prestigious CPH:DOX festival in April, and two months later, Ai and the film traveled for its UK premiere to the Sheffield Doc/Fest in northern England, where I met the artist to speak about the film, his work, and what gives him hope. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.


Alissa Wilkinson


Your first film, Human Flow, was also about the refugee crisis. Before that, you’d always worked in other media. What brought you back to film, to make The Rest? Did you feel like you’d left something unsaid?


Ai Weiwei


Making the film didn’t start with consciously saying, “We are making a film.” We just wanted to document and record our own studies and research [on global migration]. Then the footage started getting bigger and bigger. We covered more than 23 nations, interviewed 600 people. So when we were editing Human Flow, we had to find a structure, which was basically an introduction to the global refugee condition. It doesn’t go deep, and it doesn’t offer any kind of argument or solution; it’s very much like a drone view, [an overhead] look at what’s going on.


And it’s for my own study and curiosity. I was in China for most of my life, and then spent 12 years in the US, but otherwise I almost never traveled, even once. So Human Flow is clearly from one artist from China, trying to approach this huge, complicated issue.


We’ve always seen our film as something you finish with some kind of regret. Clearly the story shows the refugees’ own faith and emotions, their own language. Who they are. And so we decide to edit another film, using the footage, and we called it The Rest. There’s no expert, no NGOs, no one who speaks politically, other than the people who experience [the crisis]. They’re stuck.


Alissa Wilkinson


Yeah, that’s the feeling you get — the refugees can’t go back to their home countries, but they’re not being allowed to move forward, either.



A scene from Human Flow, Ai’s first feature.
Magnolia Pictures
A scene from Human Flow, Ai’s first feature film.


Ai Weiwei


Yeah, that’s a very strong impression I had while dealing with them. Of course, I think they are very brave. They go through difficulties, risk their lives, sacrifice their family members to come to a land they imagine will be safe, democratic, and protect their rights. They are trying to come to a safe land. They don’t ask much, you know? But they could never imagine what [they will face in Europe]; many regret that they left, but they leave and cannot go back.


That is the condition I want to tell Europe: what Europe really is, what we think Europe is, and what we don’t understand.


There are over 2 million refugees in Europe. I talked to many refugees. Yes, they’re safe — but at the same time, they’ve become nobody. It’s such a psychological issue: Have you really escaped? And what the struggle means to you. The meaning of your life. You become nobody. You become transparent. You become a number. Someone sees you simply as unsafe, or a threat to their life, or useless. It’s very hard to accept — a smart, intelligent, strong-willed person, or a young boy: Why do they have to feel abandoned like that?


Alissa Wilkinson


The film opens with a man talking who lost all of his children as he tried to cross the sea in a boat. He says something like, What are we supposed to do — kill ourselves? We’re already dead. We feel like ghosts. And yet they’re real, flesh-and-blood people.


Which speaks to one of the big differences between The Rest and Human Flow. Watching the latter, you feel like you’re seeing a map constructed in front of you, that mass migration is happening all over the world. Watching The Rest felt more like watching a mirror, where I could see the things I hope for reflected in other people’s faces. Is that mirroring of our humanity something that art can do well?


Ai Weiwei


That’s a very good question. In a way, art can cultivate an understanding of who we are. Can we really know ourselves without seeing ourselves in a mirror? Even a deer will go to the water of a pond to look at itself and appreciate its own look.


We don’t really understand ourselves. We only understand through events, or through an audience, and through our brothers, sisters, or parents, or grandparents, or children, schoolmates, teachers. That knowledge of who we are then moderates the course we take in life. But what we see are reflections of reflections of reflections; [our idea of ourselves is] half real, half virtual. So seeing ourselves mirrored back to ourselves brings us knowledge, but also a crisis of self and identity. That will affect us, our emotions, our judgment, our moral condition or philosophy.


So that’s why I struggle as an artist. And I have the liberty to struggle in that direction.


Alissa Wilkinson


I thought a lot about identity and how it’s formed when I watched The Rest. Right now, you and I are sitting in a room in the United Kingdom, which is obviously going through its own identity crisis at the moment with Brexit. What it means to be European or American is a big part of the political landscape right now.


Ai Weiwei


That’s true. We’re convinced we’re living in a democratic society, that we are a society of freedom. But do we still pursue so-called social justice, or fairness? We sense that we are very much lacking a dream. Instead, we scream with nightmares. If we look at social media, it says that can’t be true — but it’s true.


That’s how humans are really amazing: We have such capacity to have different emotions and to protect ourselves from our emotions. Otherwise, we’d all become crazy, mad. How do we store [everything we see in the world] and adjust? Or do we come to really not care at all? Is that possible? What will be the result if we all don’t care? Will there be any rationality, any purpose in life?



A black-and-white photo of Ai Weiwei where he holds both of his eyes open with two hands and stares into the camera.
Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio
Ai Weiwei.


Alissa Wilkinson


So how much do you think your own experience, having come from China, been oppressed by your government, and left the country yourself, colored the way you look at what’s happened with refugees, especially in Europe and the US?


Ai Weiwei


We both grew up in a period of time when there was no war on our land — Europe, or United States, or China. The war was happening somewhere else. We so benefited by living in this peaceful time. We were lucky, but also very much structured by our own experience. I grew up in a so-called communist society, but it really is a fatalistic society. It still is today. It never really changed. It never really became sophisticated in the modern way. It’s very primitive. It’s a state whose legitimacy is questionable because it never lets its people vote. If [the government] did that once, it might disappear forever, which is why the government cannot let happen.


The only tactic is to put anybody who wants to argue in jail. Some disappear. And that teaches a lot of people. My father’s generation — millions of them disappeared.


And if you’re honest about your experience, and if you speak up, normally people would say, oh you speak about the truth. But rather, you really speak out about the reality of yourself.


Then sometimes, of course, you disappear. Sometimes you become some kind of hero when you disappear — as if you’re very brave. I’m not a brave person. I’m just trying to maintain my integrity. To recognize my condition.


Alissa Wilkinson


In my job, I think a lot about the film industry, and lately a lot of people have talked about the Chinese film market and industry. It’s been interesting to see how much China has influenced Hollywood blockbusters — how much Hollywood has changed even its own movies for the market.


Why do you think there’s such emphasis on spectacle in blockbusters in the Chinese market?


Ai Weiwei


The reason for that is very simple. It’s almost like why, in a monster story, there’s a monster, or an antihero, or a little girl, or why the hero goes into darkness. It’s like that — there are tropes.


Why? Because the communists created such a vacuum [in China] in the past 70 years by blocking so much information, which created a very special reality. And [spectacle] is designed to touch the nerve of that kind of society. The US will never understand, because you’re very different animals. But I can perfectly understand. I try not to understand, because it makes me sick.


Alissa Wilkinson


So as an artist, is your responsibility to counteract that spectacle?


Ai Weiwei


If nobody sees my film, nobody buys my art, I’ll feel very successful. I’ll feel I did something special.


Alissa Wilkinson


In other words, if you’re unpopular, you might be doing something right?


Ai Weiwei


I think so. I think to seek popularity, you already put yourself in a very bad position. That offends the idea of being creative. You have to be very brave to be creative. Otherwise, why would you bother?


Alissa Wilkinson


Documentary film seems like an interesting medium for you to choose to work in. People have learned to understand nonfiction through watching things like reality TV — we watch a lot of nonfiction for entertainment. In your case, the people’s stories that you’re telling aren’t entertaining at all, but anyone who watches will still understand that the film follows real people.


Ai Weiwei


When we talk about meaning, we talk about beauty and truths. Truths lead us to most dangerous areas. So it’s very hard to present someone’s story. But we see reality around us all the time — just on a street corner. Yesterday I was sitting on corner of street, just watching. I found it so interesting to look at people. People are fascinating.



Refugees huddle and wait in The Rest.
CPH:DOX
Refugees huddle and wait in The Rest.


Alissa Wilkinson


In some ways, making a film, or making art, seems fruitless to people. For some people — and maybe this is just an American thing, or the way young people think — it’s only worth doing work that shows a big impact. But that doesn’t mean the small things aren’t worth doing, or that works of art aren’t worth doing, does it?


Ai Weiwei


I so much appreciate paying attention to the little inner voice. Talking about a little something. Maybe [as an artist] you show this morning, what happened, who you are now. All those things attract me so much. It’s like modern poetry: It deeply touches the core of humanity, of who we are.


And we are a very fragmented society, you know? There’s no structure anymore, no sense that there’s something everybody believes in. We are living on ruins. Our emotions, our judgment, our relations are fragmented. I think this is quite a unique condition.


Alissa Wilkinson


And it seems like something artists have an interest in, because good art, like you were saying, is not always popular, and so it feels like it’s not bringing in the money or making the big impact. Instead, it’s small, and maybe just a few people really get it.


Ai Weiwei


But it’s an environment which can help other grass or plants grow. We’re not trying to just make a big tree, but rather an environment [for the tree].


Alissa Wilkinson


Cultivating.


Ai Weiwei


Yeah, cultivating is the right word.


Alissa Wilkinson


That’s a metaphor I like; when you grow things, you put manure in the soil, the discards of the things you ate, in order to make space for things to grow.


Ai Weiwei


Now you’re understanding better about who we are, and why we become so smart and so stupid too, at the same time.


Alissa Wilkinson


There’s a lot going wrong in the world right now, I think we would agree. But are there things you see that give you hope?


Ai Weiwei


I still think that humanity is fascinating. A young boy or a young girl may not necessarily have a very profound education, but sometimes one can find their judgment or their perception quite shocking. Where did this come from? How do they construct such a big vision from little education or knowledge? Those things make you trust humanity. The universe is a very cold place; it’s a miracle what we are here. Still a miracle. So that is enough.


Being human is so beautiful, because we don’t really know what we’re doing here. We’re so brave. We go into so many things that are dangerous or mysterious. We may never understand what a human being is before we disappear. It’s just a miracle.


The Rest is currently awaiting distribution.