“It’s in my habit to play several cards together,” says Ai Weiwei during a recent trip to Los Angeles when explaining why he was drawn to film for his latest project “Human Flow,” which may be the multimedia artist’s most ambitious work to date. This is saying something for the artist who once employed over 1600 people to handpaint 100 million tiny porcelain ovals for “Sunflower Seeds,” an installation at the Tate Modern where each one of the seeds reflected the individuality that remained amidst a general mass and painstakingly capturing a frame per minute for the 45-kilometer route of Chang’an Boulevard for an eponymous 2003 video essay to illuminate the socioeconomic rhythms of China through Beijing’s most bustling boulevard.
In many ways, “Human Flow” is an extension and amplification of those ideas on a scale that only cinema can provide. An experience that criss-crosses 23 countries onscreen and will be able to be seen in many more, Ai ventures around the world to capture the march of refugees from places such as Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Eritrea as they brave often harsh terrain by foot or on tightly packed boats to safe harbor, though more and more are closing their borders to refugees. It is clearly a personal story for Ai, a citizen of the world, having been born in China, studying art in America during the early ‘80s, and decamping to Berlin after a return to Beijing ended in exile due to his political activism, which is why even as the film collects jaw-dropping atmospheric footage through the use of drone and widescreen cinematography to show the unforgiving landscape and conditions that these huddled masses must endure, it is made to feel impossibly intimate through the room left for every person who appears on camera to make an impression.
Ai rethinks the use of every cinematic tool available to him to convey the destabilizing feeling of the perpetual search for home, whether it’s how locations are identified — you may find yourself on the Eastern Turkey border while thinking you’re still in Lebanon due to deliberate pauses in the subtitles — or mixing the grandeur that can be brought into sharp relief by the latest and greatest digital cameras with footage snapped from an iPhone. (As he confides, “I think it helps to have a much more complicated argument or thinking, [so it] helps for me to work in very different mediums and also different forms of communication at the same time.”) But all these methods distill the seemingly impossibly large issues of the refugee crisis into an pure understanding of it that bypasses ideology and political thought to connect with purely human considerations.
After premiering at the Venice Film Festival earlier this fall, “Human Flow” recently arrived on American shores and to mark the occasion, Ai reflected on the journey of the film, pulling off such an ambitious undertaking that covers so much ground in so many ways and why so many animals made their way into the frame.
I understand this started in Greece. Did you envision this as global in scope from the start or would one situation lead to another?
It started before Greece. We started with Iraq before I could travel — that was my first initial understanding about refugees [while I] was still in detention, so I sent two assistants to do the filming — [it’s those scenes] at the beginning of the film [where] you have a few standing figures, one after another just like portraits, those I did before the film started. But after I was released in 2015, I came to Berlin [where] I had the first chance to really meet some refugees. Then I went to Greece last fall to start the real approach of the topic. So it was very much a personal journey. I never had any ambitions to make a big film, but it’s like you throw a string into the water and then you pull it and it’s like, “Oh, that’s heavy.” You realize it’s something bigger than you expect, so then you have to bring in more teams and go to more locations and to capture the real sense of the political condition. It got so big, we had to have 10-20 people teams in different locations.
How did you want to cover each location? At times, it seems like you’re filming, someone is filming you and there’s a larger crew around to take in the landscape.
We are not really designed in that way actually. There are pieces relating to my shooting or my intimate relations to the subject matter, [but] if you pay attention, those are very often shot low grade [like an] iPhone. We never planned to put myself in. But fortunately [we found] some footage that we still can use, even though it’s not of good quality, [and] we often had to go to a location with sometimes many cameras because we had short time to interview people. Often, the film didn’t give us enough time, moving from one location to another, and we did 600 interviews, [and the production was] always ready to move, so that creates a lot of different kinds of shooting in terms of techniques or language or even quality. But it’s very interesting because if you look at [the way the image was captured] – from the drones, to handphones to [all this] very different quality shooting, it reflects our reality.
Drones were only just coming into their own as a cinematic tool when you started this. How did they come into the mix?
We used the drones because we had to find a special angle to cope with this very grand topic. We often have to have the idea to pull back our cameras and put the refugees as part of a landscape, as [part of] the nature, [but] it’s called “Human Flow.” You can not just focus on the water. You have to focus on the river, and on the side or under the mountain and the trees — you definitely need perspective, which you can only create by this modern technology. The human point of view is so limited. Once you pull up to see the conditions, it’s a very, very different feeling.
There is also a continuing motif of animals.
I think we only understand the human condition by looking at what we did to those animals. One touching story is this Syrian girl. She has been going through such [a terrible] journey, but she carried cats from her home. She said the cats’ life is her life, and this is very touching. I myself had 40 cats. When I moved to Germany, I didn’t bring one of them. It seemed so impossible to carry a pet. This is a horrible, dangerous journey and they have to hide [the pets] in their boots, crawl in these dinghy boats with all those smugglers and stay in the refugee camps for months. It’s just so hard. But you see how they respect another life. [These are people] being pictured as someone who could be dangerous. Then you see the ironic story of this [rare] tiger from Gaza being rescued [where] every government is helping and everyone is happy. But look at the Gaza situation [in general], it’s unacceptable.
During filming, were there any moments that changed your ideas about what this could be?
This film, and maybe it’s the nature of most of my work, it’s very single-minded. From the beginning, we design it. We even know the language of what kind of shooting quality and what kind of camera movement we want, what kind of lens and we’re very, very clear about what we don’t want. We don’t want news footage or trying to capture a story [with] very rapid cutting or fast-changing images. We don’t like this. We wanted something that gives a little bit more time for gaze and for people to have feelings relating to the subject.
You do include more traditional sit-down interviews with people in positions of authority. Were those conducted after you had done your shooting on the ground?
It happened at the same time in every location. A researcher from our team would provide a dozen names related to the topic — could be scholars, [people who] could [speak to] both sides of the argument, human rights/Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch or UN HCR people, government officials, and we tried to approach them. Sometimes we’re successful and they’re [wanting] to talk and many of them ignored our effort, so we tried our best. We did 600 interviews, which is very valuable.
It’s quite a challenge because you cover so many locations in these two hours of footage. You need a very grand, historical perspective, but also you need some interviews to elaborate what the story is about and to have details about this really human struggle. All those things [are] mixed and after 20 locations, each of them can only take a few minutes, so it’s always a challenge, but we decided the film has to cope with the global situation and give a larger perspective. Lucky enough, we had over 900 hours of footage, so we can [go] in almost every direction.
What’s it been like to travel with this film?
I never expected we would be in this kind of post-production, promoting the film because I never make films for the commercial market. I make a lot of films that I just directly put out on the internet and already 100,000 people watch it in China. But with this, we had to wait for months to prepare for distribution and then to go to festivals and to talk to people. I’ve already done over 100 interviews about this film and it’s a very, very different experience to first understand what film industry is about and to see how difficult it is to drag an audience to theater today. It’s not like before. To go to theater was like a religious practice, to understand something more. But today, you have such rich social media and television [that] people much less depend on this [theatrical] experience. But it’s interesting for me to really make the effort and to clearly state my mind and to communicate because the topic, I think, is so relevant and really reflects our humanity and will affect our society, so it’s very much worth it.