The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is internationally recognized for his massive, often provocative art installations. And yet, he's spent most of the past decade under house arrest for his persistent defense of free expression.
But as soon as his passport was reissued by the Chinese government a couple of years ago, Ai embarked on possibly his most ambitious project yet: documenting the global refugee crisis. The result of his cinematic journey, Human Flow, is out this week.
Ai spoke with NPR about his new documentary, which aims to describe what's become the largest forced migration since World War II — 65 million people displaced by war, famine and climate change.
But instead of following the experience of any one group of asylum seekers, Ai takes a more expansive tack, traveling to 23 different countries over the stretch of a year. Employing drone views, the film charts the journeys of divergent populations, including Syrians, Kenyans, Kurds, Palestinians and the Rohingya.
It's a theme that also hits home for the Chinese dissident, having grown up in isolation with his poet father, who was exiled from China.
"Being a refugee is much more than a political status," Ai says. "As a human being, if you sit in front of any of them, if you look in their eyes, you immediately understand who they are."
On seeing himself as a refugee
I was born after the year my father was criticized as an enemy of the people. In China, that's the biggest crime you can have. My father is simply a poet, a very well-known poet. So he had been exiled [and] I grew up with him in a very remote area, the desert actually, in northwest China. So I personally experienced how people have been mistreated and, of course, also really punished, for the crime he never really committed. So I share this kind of sentiment of people who miss everything and lost everything.
On what it means to be a refugee
Being a refugee is much more than a political status. It is the most pervasive kind of cruelty that can be exercised against a human being. By depriving a person of all forms of security, the most basic requirements of a normal life, by cruelly placing that person of inhospitable host countries that do not want to receive this refugee. You are forcibly robbing this human being of all aspects that would make life, not just tolerable, but meaningful in many ways.
On what his film adds to the discussion on the refugee crisis
As a human being, if you sit in front of any of them, if you look in their eyes, you immediately understand who they are. They are just like your brothers or your sisters or your own children or your grandma. It's nothing different. It's only something you can see from their eyes. They have courage. They can give up everything, just for safety or shelter, or to see their children's future maybe will change because they take this action.
On his feelings for people who fear migrants
I have great sympathy for them, for the lacking of knowledge, and as a result, lacking of the understanding of humanity, and also [how they] underestimate their own possibilities to help another person, which can be considered as the highest ritual in many, many religions — just helping someone. Never to say this is too big or it's not my problem. I do have a great, deepest sympathy for people who don't have a clear vision about the world and about themselves, [and] don't understand the value of life.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now to an artist who has been recognized all over the world for his art installations and dissident activism in China, activism that cost him years under house arrest. We're talking about Ai Weiwei. When his passport was reissued by the Chinese, Ai Weiwei embarked on what might be his most ambitious project yet, an epic film about the global refugee crisis, the largest forced migration since World War II. The film, "Human Flow," released yesterday, tries to capture both the enormous scale of the crisis - the miles-long lines of people toting their belongings, the massive refugee camps - as well as the individual stories of people, including many children in desperate need. I spoke with Ai Weiwei recently about the film, and I started by asking if he saw himself as a refugee.
AI WEIWEI: Yes, 100 percent because I was born after the year my father criticized as, you know, enemy of the people. In China, that's the crime you can have. My father is simply a poet, a very well-known poet. So he has been exiled. I grew up with him in very remote desert area actually in Northwest China. So I personally experienced, you know, how people has been mistreated and, of course, also really punished for the crime he never really committed. So I share this kind of sentiment of people who miss everything and lost everything.
MARTIN: What do you hope your film will add to the - all of the discussion about the global migrant crisis?
AI: I think as a human being, if you sit in front of any of them, you look at their eyes, you immediately understand who they are. They just like you - brothers or sisters or your own children. You know, it's nothing different. But they very often made to see the news footage. We see some very dramatic or sentimental. But admittedly, we can forget about them because there's very little human connection in there. It become some kind of story.
So my understanding is you really have to meet them to see who they are. Then you understand you're the one who can really take action. So we're - in human society, every tragedy's actually made by ourselves. And we have enough resource, if we do have some understanding of humanity, to use it to solve those problems, to help those people. By helping them, we understand ourselves because we are all part of it. We cannot give up humanity or to curse them away. This is never the answer.
MARTIN: The film shows scale in a way that is hard for me to describe without seeing it. I mean, there are many aerial shots where you see just vast seas of people on the move. But you also tell, as you said, individual stories where you talk to people about their experiences. Is there any story that you wish to highlight for us?
AI: The situation getting so bad that you have 65 million being pushed away from their home. Every second, there are people losing home. So yes, each of them have very sad and touching stories, but they're all the same. It's all as a result of our neglect in 21st century. You know, people are so privileged and have enough resource to help, but because we don't want to look at it, because our media doesn't really give the real true discussion on those shows, and our leadership so cold and lacking of compassion and imagination.
MARTIN: To that end, I was looking at some excerpts from the film on YouTube. And there's an excerpt from you on YouTube talking about the film. And I must say, the comments are very ugly. They say that, you know, these people are rapists. And I just wonder, how do you - one does not know how seriously to take this. This could be like three people just, you know, sending a lot of nasty comments. But what if it does represent a significant - how do you understand that?
AI: I think it's not just a few people. You have the certain powerful party in this election in Germany, rightists, and they're really racist, and in the United States same. You know, you have this kind of brutality of violence towards colored people. And this is shocking. And this is fact. And you have a president not who protect those people but rather to set up policies to divide people or to build a wall.
MARTIN: Do you have - forgive me - but do you have any sympathy at all for the fear that some people have about refugees and migrants?
AI: I have great sympathy for them for the lacking of knowledge and that, as a result, lack of understanding of humanity and also underestimate their own possibilities to help another person, which can be considered as highest ritual in many, many religions. Just help someone. Never to say this is too big or it's not my problem. So I do have a great deepest sympathy for people who doesn't have a clear vision about the world and about themselves, you know, doesn't understand the value of life.
MARTIN: What is keeping you going at this point?
AI: My curiosity. I try to understand the world, you know, before it's too late. I'm quite old, 60 years old. And my knowledge is very narrow. And, you know, I'm still very naive in many ways. But I never really liked to really jump into a situation. And through this experience, I can learn something.
MARTIN: That is Ai Weiwei. He is an artist, activist and filmmaker. His new documentary, "Human Flow," is out this week. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Ai Weiwei, thank you so much for speaking with us.
AI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.