“All the stories in a refugee camp are so sad; nobody knows who you are,” the artist said during an interview last month after attending the inaugural 6 Degrees conference in Toronto, where he received the Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship. “I said: ‘You have come from so far away. Here in Europe, pianos are plenty. So let’s get you a piano.’ I am the son of a poet; I have romantic thinking. Why do we have to cry when we are in this desperate situation when we can fly?”
Finding a company that would rent a piano and ship it to the isolated and squalid camp was challenging, but Ai’s team finally succeeded. The young woman said she wanted to play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, but when she sat at the keyboard, she found she no longer knew how; after three years of wandering, she had even forgotten pianos had black keys as well as white. At Ai’s urging, she stumbled through a few phrases, but the footage of her doing so never appears in the film. Why not?
“Too sentimental,” Ai says tersely.
In seeking to stand beside refugees and bear witness to their plight, Ai has to strike a delicate balance. He is not a journalist and is dismissive of the sob stories and individual-who-stands-for-the-multitude approach the news media pursue as reporters comb an international crisis for human interest. “There are 200 journalists there; they all talk about the same story, how pitiable. There are so many bright people in the camp; there are scientists, economists, engineers, artists. What’s their story? We wanted to keep a smooth tone, not many personal stories, but a grand scale. We are not trying to make a movie; it’s a human crisis.”
On the other hand, the exiled dissident, who long battled Chinese authorities to make art critical of the regime and was incarcerated for three months in 2011, is determined that each of us has the same human rights and that it is incumbent on every individual to speak out for the refugees.
“I am not just a dissident of an authoritarian society: I am a dissident of a human condition in which the human-rights and freedom-of-speech issues have to be questioned in every aspect,” he said.
So, perhaps the single most important passage in the two-hours-and-20-minute film, which opens in Canada later this month, shows Ai at Idomeni introducing himself to and briefly swapping passports with a young Syrian man. The moment is heavy with the audience’s knowledge that the Chinese passport is a precious totem, hard-won by a dissident who was not allowed to leave the country for four years, while the Syrian’s passport is almost worthless.
“We are so different in social status. I’m an established artist; he has no future. I said: ‘I respect your passport; I respect you.’ But can the world really respect these people?”
Ai’s previous films have documented the heritage-destroying pace of development in Beijing and enumerated all the children who died in the flimsy “tofu” schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. His visual art has included millions of hand-painted ceramic sunflower seeds he created for the Tate Modern in London – a work of gigantic scale inspired by the tension between the individual and the masses in Communist Chinese society – and marble copies of the surveillance cameras erected outside his studio during the four years of his house arrest.
Human Flow coincides with his departure for the West: In 2015, after authorities restored his passport, he moved his studio to Berlin to protect his young son. But he says it is coincidental that he has turned his eagle eye on an international shame now that he no longer lives in China.
“There is always one problem in relating to my struggle: how the world relates to human-rights issues. Very often in the West, people think, oh, that’s an issue in China, Russia or in North Korea or Cuba. It’s easy to do that; it gives the West superiority; we are the ones protecting [rights] and the others are violating. My understanding of human rights is much broader and if anyone’s rights in any form are violated, that violates everyone’s. I see humanity as one.”
It’s a position that led to his controversial 2016 photo in which he lay on a Greek beach to recreate the infamous news image of a little Syrian boy who had washed up drowned in Turkey. The artist had become interested in refugee issues while still in China, when he was invited by a charitable foundation to select work for an exhibition of drawings created by Yazidi Kurds in an Iraqi refugee camp. “When I looked at the drawings, they were quite touching. … They looked like children’s drawings but they were adult drawings, about their memories, about their houses being destroyed by [the Islamic State], massacres.” He couldn’t visit the camp, but he sent two staffers from his studio to interview 400 refugees and film a handful of them.
Once in Germany, he visited a refugee camp with a doctor he had met. He has said he sympathizes with refugees because of his own childhood, spent in internal exile in remote locations when his father, the renowned poet Ai Qing, was purged as a “rightist” in 1957 by the Chinese government. Soon after he visited the refugee camp in Germany, Ai scheduled a family holiday in Greece, deciding that his interest in ancient Cycladic art should take him to Lesbos, the Greek island that is a first landing place for African and Middle Eastern refugees who have sailed the Mediterranean.
“A boat comes right in front of me,” he said, recalling his shock at seeing the arrivals. “You know there are refugees, but you don’t expect it on such a beautiful day, sunny and blue, in a place of Greek mythology. … You know there are snakes, but you have never seen a snake. And then, oh my God. Your whole body responds. Your knowledge, your rationality breaks down. I started to use my phone to record the situation. I said I have to move my studio there.” He began shooting on Lesbos before moving the project to Gaza, Jordan, the Mexican-American border and the migrant camps at Calais, France. And he spent an entire month at Idomeni.
He is often asked what people should do about the crisis, and there he simply reiterates that each of us is human. Viewers of his film will be viscerally and intellectually confronted by the refugees and “come out with their own judgment: Is this acceptable? If we cannot accept it, it takes everybody’s voice at any moment, just like the stupid artist starting to use his phone to shoot.”