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Ai Weiwei Talks Global Refugee Crisis & New Film in San Francisco

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By Emily Wilson

 “Human Flow.” Amazon Studios

During an interview at the Fairmont Hotel, dissident Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei seems tired, at one point resting his head on his arms briefly.

You can’t blame him. Arguably the most famous artist in the world, Ai has been tireless in promoting his new documentary, Human Flow. Publicity might not be his favorite thing, but he feels so strongly about the forced migration of 65 million refugees around the world, that he is doing what he can to get out the word out.

The subject is personal for Ai, a human rights advocate whose poet father was exiled during the Cultural Revolution. Ai himself was detained by the Chinese government several years ago for 81 days on charges of tax evasion, and for a while wasn’t allowed to leave China. Alcatraz, the former federal prison which housed Al Capone and was the site of an occupation by Native American activists, had a show of his work while he was detained, @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, which he put together without having been there.

@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz

“I identify with those who have lost everything– my father was an exile and we left our home when I was just born in 1957 and for 20 years we couldn’t go back to our home,” he said. “Then I was in detention in China and forced to not leave my home. It was the same – it was against my will.”

Ai now lives in Berlin, where he’s said he has met refugees and talked with them. Human Flow, which was not intended to become the two hour and 20 minute documentary it became, began when he went to Lesbos with his son, he says, and he just started filming on his iPhone.

“The first boat approached the land, and it was shocking, these people coming from the ocean with old people and babies crying- horrifying.  and nobody helping them,” he said. “Later I followed them to the camp, and the tents were very cheap and it started raining.”

Amazon Studios

Ai ended up setting up investigative teams to look at the recorded history of displacement and migration. Statistics they found as well as bits of poetry and quotes such as a Buddhist scripture: “Neither in the sky nor in mid-ocean, nor by entering into mountain clefts, nowhere in the world is there a place where one may escape from the results of evil deeds,” show on the screen during the movie. It will be released on Amazon after coming out in the theaters this month.

To make Human Flow, Ai went to 23 countries, including Bangladesh, Greece, Iraq, Mexico, and Turkey. The movie uses drone shots to show the scores of people walking to a new life, often stopped at a border, and the camps, some as big as little towns. He also conducted individual interviews with refugees talking about their lives, as well as experts.

The shots from up above particularly have an almost dreamy, surreal quality.

An aerial drone shot from Ai Weiwei’s film, “Human Flow,” shows the Nizip Camp in Gaziantep, Turkey. Amazon Studios

“The whole things was surreal to me,” he says about the refugee camps and the thousands of people walking, “You can not even imagine that reality, so I wanted to create a view of the beauty of the coldness, of the indifference of the conditions, but with very, very human people and a sadness there.”

Asked what he would want people to do about the millions of displaced people, Ai says what he most wants people to see is that this is a global problem that doesn’t just affect refugees.

“Most refugees are not seeking for money –they’re seeking for understanding. They have no future. They exist but do not exist. It’s not just for the refugees’ benefit but for our own benefit,” he said. “If we don’t understand we’re all connected and that someone’s human rights being violated that means our family or someone’s rights are also violated – if we don’t have that, then we are not living in a civilized society.”

OctHuman Flow and Ai Weiwei play at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club Oct 20th but it is SOLD OUT.  For more possible showtimes and events:



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