Besides being a renowned political activist, Ai Wei Wei is arguably the most influential contemporary artist from China. His work ranges from architecture, photography, installations, literature to film, and is celebrated the world over. His latest documentary feature HUMAN FLOW tracks the current refugee crisis over 23 countries in the course of one year. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival in competition.
We had the rare chance to sit down with the multi-hyphenated director and talk about the making of this film, borders and which films he digs.
In addition to the subject matter and the artistic approach, the role of the filmmaker is also a decisive factor for a documentary. In some instances the filmmaker takes on a passive role and you barely register their voice watching the finished product. In others the filmmakers can be more present, actively guiding the narrative. In HUMAN FLOW you seem to have chosen a level of engagement somewhere in between the two. Can you talk about this decision?
This is a specific but important observation you made. It’s also something that we had to contend with repeatedly during the editing process, including the question of whether to use narration and how much of it to use. At first I envisioned myself as an active participant but there we ran into the problem that my grasp of the whole refugee crisis was far from sufficient. I knew way too little about the facts and history of the situation.
That said, it should be pointed out that I have always been – on a psychological level – a refugee myself. My father had been sent to labor camp the day I was born, so I spent the first 20 years of my life in a remote region in north-western China. Even today, I cannot return to my home country.
But back to your question: it’s later on when we started putting the footage together with the structure of the film in mind that we sensed that footage of myself should also be included. We hadn’t shot any such footage, however. So we used footage shot on my cell phone or the phones of others instead. Which is why whenever I appear in the film, the picture quality is so poor. Those footage were added afterwards.
And why? I’m both an observer the the observed. This film we made is done without my personal perspective on the matter. I want the film to reflect the viewer’s perspective. When the viewer sees me, they could tell that this is not a BBC report or any grand production. Yes, the subject matter is grand and complex, but it’s also a poem or individual-based prose. This is the first reason for my presence in the film.
The second reason is a recurring theme in mz work, that individuals can partake in something bigger. I’ve always emphasized this point on social media. Especially in today’s society, where the power structure has become so complex it’s hard to tell when the interests of certain countries/regimes align. But an individual remains an individual.
Some documentaries are more emotionally driven than others. Considering the subject matter, I found the level of emotionality in HUMAN FLOW has been kept relatively low. Would you agree with this assessment and was that a conscious decision?
You’re quite right and this was a very conscious decision. You can imagine we had collected a vast amount of footage of people suffering from similarly horrifying experiences. But my goal is to make a film with cinematic language and a sense of time, one that induces the viewer into a state of mind where they forget the rhythm of their daily life and enter a meditative state. This is important for me and it’s what I expect from a movie-going experience. So from the very beginning, I’ve been mindful of this with regard to the design of the shots, the imagery, and also the rhythm, the use of music and sound design.
Do you also try to refrain from any form of audience manipulation?
That’s correct. With regard to such a complex subject matter, the history is fraught with controversy. There have always been and there will always be many different opinions. It’s pointless to side with anybody. What I’m looking for is a sense of harmony, the perception of beauty, an understanding of suffering and human nature. It’s the only common ground we can find. I mean, when you see the joy on a child’s face when he gets a new pair of shoes – every person can relate to that.
Borders is one of the central themes of HUMAN FLOW. Can you share your thoughts on borders in our world today?
Unfortunately borders will always exist. But the existence of borders as symbols of hostility will not last forever. In the ideal case, borders protect the existence of individuality and regional diversity. So borders is by itself not an evil concept. But man-made borders that demonize “the others” and encourage hostility and hate, that is very evil. Sadly we’ve seen an significant increase in this latter form of borders over the last years.
Another refugee-themed documentary from last year won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival (Oscar-nominated FIRE AT SEA) but it adopted a very localized view of the issue. HUMAN FLOW, on the other hand, is made obviously on a global scale. Has this been decided from the get-go?
I haven’t seen any other refugee-themed documentaries, but it wouldn’t interest me as much to focus on an individual story for this subject matter. I prefer tracing back to the roots of the problem. To find out what had come before, what is the current state and what are the alternatives. This could also be done using an individual-based narrative but what I prefer to do is to examine human nature in the broad sense. Whether in developed or undeveloped countries, against the natural environment, overpopulation or wars – what challenges does each of them pose to human nature. This is what interests me.
Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH was highly acclaimed and embraced by the audience, but in its wake, we see the American public electing someone President who takes a clear stance against environmental protection. What do you hope for HUMAN FLOW to achieve?
Actually the same company (Participant) produced our films. Well, we shouldn’t be doing anything thinking of its practical effect. For me, I choose projects based on whether I feel compelled to do it. It’s a responsibility to myself and not an attempt to change to the world. What I ask myself is: who am I if I don’t do this? On the other hand, I think it’s hard to demand a response from the society.
You’re known to be a multi-talented artist. What’s the biggest difference between filmmaking and other forms of creative art?
The biggest difference is that when you shoot a film, you try to express yourself to everyone, using a language accessible to anyone, because films are ultimately audience-oriented. Other forms of artistic expression I pursue mostly for myself or at the request of specific exhibitions. Because of the production costs involved, you rarely get to make a film solely for yourself.
People know Ai Wei Wei as an artist, political activist etc. Does Ai Wei Wei the man love movies? What kind of movies does he like?
I don’t have a high level of film appreciation. I would weep at any attempt of emotional manipulation in the most conventional movies. When I was still in film school, we saw a lot of Fellini which I loved. On my own I really enjoyed BLADE RUNNER, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, THE GODFATHER, TAXI DRIVER. They all introduced me to experiences I never had. Without these hours of footage flicking in front of our eyes, our world would have missed so much!
From the sound of it you don’t just like avant-garde art films.
I’m actually not a big fan of avant-garde art films. You shouldn’t force something down the audience’s throat. I think having appeal is important. I love cakes, ice cream and all the colorful icings on top. Temptation is one of the key factors for the continuation of our civilization.