The sound of a woman’s voice plays over footage of a long line of Syrian refugees trudging down a winding road in Greece near the Macedonian border, carrying heavy bags and their own children. They keep to the shoulder of the highway, passing skeletal trees.
“I’ve been roaming endlessly with my son for 60 days now. Nobody has shown us the way,” she says. “Where am I supposed to start my new life?”
Hers is but one of the stories the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei captured during a 23-country odyssey that culminated in the October release of his feature-length documentary, Human Flow. The film, which the Washington Post called “breathtaking,” is intended to be a visual confrontation, forcing viewers to reckon with the more than 65 million people today who have been forcibly displaced from their homes.
The sheer scale of this calamity has left Ai staggering. “It is beyond my imagination and previous understanding,” he says via email. He notes that in recent months, “over 500,000 refugees were created right in front of our eyes.” But he was even more shocked, during the making of the film, that “people in privileged conditions or ‘civilized’ societies” could be “so indifferent” to the suffering.
Ai has experienced displacement on a personal level: He says the seed for the film was sown “the year [he] was born.” That was when his father, a noted Chinese poet, was identified as a dissident in a purge of intellectuals in China that began in 1957 and was subsequently marked for exile to a remote corner of Xinjiang province at the edge of the Gobi Desert for his views and writings. “I grew up with him there,” Ai says, “and witnessed the most discriminatory and politically harsh conditions.”
After years of harassment by China’s police state, including a three-month detention in 2011 that coincided with a broader crackdown on dissent, Ai left the country in 2015; he now lives in Berlin. But he remains deeply engaged in his homeland, where his art and daily tweets have provided solace and fodder to protesters.
Research for Human Flow got underway when Ai was still in China, waiting for the authorities to return his passport. Mexico, Greece, Malaysia, Kenya, and 19 other countries are depicted in the film, the making of which involved 600 interviews, 25 film crews, and 900 hours of footage — some shot by drone — of sites including 40 refugee camps. Well-received by critics, the documentary opened strong at the box office this fall, beating other specialty releases.
“I think it’s significant that a major Chinese artist is taking up global themes and is now helping to shape the global conversation on refugees,” says Jocelyn Ford, the Beijing-based American director of the 2014 documentary Nowhere to Call Home. Ai is one of China’s most famous contemporary artists, yet his works addressing political and social issues, such as corruption and censorship, remain less well-known within China, Ford says, in part due to government restrictions on media coverage.
For his part, Ai says he will never again see China as a place he “could call home unless that society becomes understanding of human dignity [and] freedom of speech.” With Human Flow, he subverts the very notion of national borders; Ai hopes the film “pushes us to examine and challenge our understanding of our humanity.”
Christina Larson is a journalist based in Beijing.
Ai is an ace blackjack player who made trips to Atlantic City, New Jersey, in the 1980s when he was living in New York City.