Ai answers questions about his monumental refugee crisis film project.
Ai Weiwei’s latest film, Human Flow, was screened at The Whitby Hotel on October 9, and the screening was followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker, moderated by Dave Karger. Find the transcript of the event below, and catch our coverage of the film itself here. Take action.
You know when I was watching part of this film for a second time tonight, I was again struck by those airplane hangars which completely blew me away. What was your first reaction when you saw what these camps and these hangars looked like?
Ai Weiwei: I’ll say that all these camps are really supposed to be temporary, but people are still there from two years ago. They live life there. People really start to go crazy after they stay there for some time.
This obviously not the first time you’ve worked in film and video. But I don’t think you’ve ever done anything this ambitious in size or scope. How is this different from anything you’ve done before?
Ai: I have been doing this since the 90’s. Mostly, I did films just to put on the Internet the next day so it was very simple. But this one, even after the postproduction, still we waited for half a year, and only now we’re starting to promote it so it’s a very, very different process. We made so much effort but it’s very hard for me to look at. It doesn’t matter how much effort we made, we still owe these people so much. The reality is just so bad.
This film does a tremendous job explaining the entire global scope of the refugee crisis. Is there one subsection, one group or country, that you learned about that sparked the initial interest to make a film like this?
Ai: I gradually got involved. I never knew the film would later have this scope, travelling to twenty-three nations, to forty camps, filming six hundred interviews, and of course having almost one thousand hours of footage. That gradually got bigger and bigger as the situation developed so dramatically. At the beginning I just wanted to learn something about the situation.
I would imagine there were so many different challenges in every country and every camp. What sticks out as the biggest challenge in shooting this that you had to overcome?
Ai: Many areas we could not approach. Many of the areas were just impossible. We even tried to smuggle into them and it’s just not possible. And of course many areas are dangerous for reasons like ISIS.
What were the biggest challenges in structuring this film? It’s masterfully done, but how hard was it to structure and figure out the puzzle?
Ai: We had nine hundred hours of footage and six fine cutters to work on the film and to find the right material to keep the film having a massive scale but an intimate texture and humanity and maintaining the balance. We cannot let individual stories to develop but at the same time it needs to be watchable.
Particularly in the first half hour of the film, there are these shots where you just put a camera on these men and women in the refugee camps, and they’re not speaking, but you just put the camera right on them. You force the audience to look at them for thirty seconds at a time. What were you going for with those static shots?
Ai: Those shots actually we got before I was even allowed to travel to the west. I was still in China in 2014 and I sent two people from my studio and we did not just four or five of them, but we did hundreds of them and shot each of the refugees for one minute. It’s a different kind of art form. The reality is so surreal. Normally you say the documentary is about reality, but you can really interpret reality very differently.
Throughout the film you’re taking us all over the globe, and I began to wonder if you were going to take us the United States, and I knew that if you were it was going to be at the end. And sure enough at the end, there’s that great moment. Is that something you did on purpose?
Ai: Yes, the purpose of having it at the end is so that it will be the beginning of the next film.
Lastly, you have this wide-ranging public installation opening this week called “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors”. How would you say this film influenced that project or vice versa? How are the two connected?
Ai: The film is my personal journey to study this human crisis and during this filming process I had about ten museum shows featuring works relating to the refugee condition. And certainly this show that’s going to happen in New York is dealing with territory, fences, and migration.
Photo credit: Getty Images.