Changing Responsibilities

Changing Responsibilities

Ai Weiwei is the Chinese-born artist whose work has been exhibited all over the world. He’s also spent 81 days in jail after the Chinese government arrested him in the wake of his frequent protests about its human rights record. Now living in Berlin, he returns with Human Flow, a feature documentary about the refugee crisis that spans 23 countries and was shot over the course of a year.

ASFF: How logistically difficult was this film to make?
: Logistically…you can see the conditions of the countries are very different. Some are quite restricted; some are even impossible because of war – like Syria – and difficult to get visas. But we managed, went to all the places we wanted. [Only] Syria, Aleppo – all those places I really wanted to go [but could not]. We tried many ways, even thought about smuggling me in, but it was not possible. That time was pretty much restricted by the bombing and the war.

ASFF: Do you identify with the refugees? Your own family was in exile when you were young…
AW: Well, it started when I was born. My father was exiled. We were pushed out from our home. We went from Beijing to the most remote area in China, as far as you can go – the northwest, the Gobi desert. My father started hard labour there, cleaning public toilets in the rural area. Pretty heavy. The worst job you can do is punish someone … just to say: “You’re an enemy of the state, you’re an enemy of the Party, you’ve got to be punished.”

ASFF: What did you learn from your father?
I think to face reality and still have your own intelligent way to cope with the situation. I think his wisdom was to face reality and still have his own humour and own strength. With his physical work, he still tried to make the work rewarding. Every day he tried to achieve perfection and beauty in this worst possible situation.

ASFF: When the Brexit vote happened in the UK, there was much fear built around migrants in the “Leave’ campaign”. What were your thoughts?
AW: The argument is clear but what’s behind the argument? Britain or the US is not seeing themselves as a leading force for humanity or those fundamental values. They gave up those positions. It’s selfish and short-sighted. If any nation or any person doesn’t bare responsibility when the crisis happens that is lost credit. People know your weakness. You’re not capable emotionally, intellectually, to cope with the situation. This is a human tragedy. It’s created by humans.

ASFF: You’re living in Berlin now. Are you making art regularly?
Yeah, I’m making art every day. Now I’m talking to you, which is part of my art. It’s an essential moral and philosophical judgement we’re putting up…I just have to find the form. It can be film, can be sculptures, can be installations, can be public art…I’m just like a carpenter!

James Mottram

Human Flow opens on 8 December. For more details, visit:

1. Still from Human Flow.