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"I have no home” – an interview with ai weiwei

Juule Kay

Juule Kay

The Chinese artist and activist on his new film, Human Flow -- an in-depth look at the refugee crisis from a journey across 23 countries.

This article originally appeared on i-D Germany.

"When there is nowhere to go, nowhere is home,” reads the poster for Human Flow, Ai Weiwei’s latest film, which will be released in UK cinemas in December. Not only does the quote refer to the current refugee crisis -- which Weiwei calls a “Human crisis” -- it also applies to the artist himself. Ever since the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry was released in 2012, it’s apparent that he, too, is a refugee. In Never Sorry the director, Alison Klayman, documented Ai Weiwei’s release from prison in China, his arrest at the airport in Tokyo, and the destruction of his studio in Shanghai.

"It’s not enough to only show the situation in Syria. You have to take a look at the entirety of human nature to see where it is coming from and how it ended up like this."

Back then, Ai was forced to leave his native China, because of his political activism. He counts himself among the 65 million people worldwide who’ve been driven violently from their homes. The highest number since the end of World War II. Human Flow is an evocative mix of facts, analysis and emotional scenes from across the globe. In it, Ai puts centre stage the individual fate of each refugee.

Human Flow, Ai Weiwei

"It’s not enough to only show the situation in Syria. You have to take a look at the entirety of human nature to see where it is coming from and how it ended up like this." That’s why the Chinese artist and activist travelled with his team to 23 different countries -- including Syria, Greece and Mexico -- to bear witness to the tragedy of humanity with his very own eyes.

Before the release of Human Flow in Germany, i-D met with Weiwei in his studio in Berlin to discuss what each and every one of us can do to overcome this social crisis.

For your latest movie, you travelled to 23 different countries to see this human crisis with your own eyes. What was the biggest challenge on your journey?
There were lots of problems, because you need a special team for every country. Everything had to be arranged because we had to be super punctual to get to everywhere to integrate the people -- whether officers, smugglers, or refugees -- in the camps. Sometimes it can get quite dangerous, but the most difficult part was actually leaving the camps after all the interviews, knowing that I didn’t really help anyone. I had to keep telling myself that the movie would serve its purpose later, and hopefully raise awareness among people.

You wanted to put a face to the statistics about refugees and tell their individual stories. What’s the message you want to convey with your movie?
The movie is the message. We have to ask ourselves why it was necessary to make this kind of movie in the first place; after all, the topic is discussed a lot in the media. But Human Flow tries to understand instead of recreating fragmentary descriptions of it. That’s necessary, because you have to see these things in order to understand the human struggle. The pictures are too fragmented, and that makes it difficult to see what’s really behind these situations. We don’t get a lot of information about that, especially not through the mainstream media. There are people whose families have been in the camps for three generations, so they basically spend their entire lives as refugees. They’re suffering, we all know that, but we don’t reach out to them. The world should be one but it doesn’t behave that way. It is broken.

Human Flow, Ai Weiwei

On the film poster is the following quote: "When there is nowhere to go, nowhere is home.” You also had to leave China for political reasons. Does this sentence speak to you?
Yes, I think it reflects the concept of home. It’s a place where there’s more tolerance and where you are accepted as a whole and not rejected. If your home is against you, it’s no longer home. In my home country, I’ve never been accepted. They put me in prison, beat me and exiled me. Now I’m in Germany and I’ve chosen freedom -- even though, at the same time, it’s a very limited freedom if you don’t speak the language.

What does home mean to you?
I have no home. I’ve never felt like I could go home -- not even in the most private situations when I visited my parents. For political reasons, they’re living in a state of constant risk, their entire lives, and that’s why I’m not safe with them either.

You were imprisoned for more than 80 days, left with nothing more than your own thoughts. What did you realise during that extreme situation?
I realised that the worst situation is not the one where you’re beaten, locked up or considered an enemy, but the one where you’re deprived of any kind of communication. During that kind of arrest you lose your entire vocabulary, because there’s no way you can talk to someone -- not even the guards. So you have to learn an entirely new vocabulary. Each movement and each look has a completely new meaning. It’s very hard to accept that -- and that’s exactly what all refugees experience when they come to a foreign country.

What can each and everyone of us do to stop this human crisis?
We’ve always hoped and thought that in the 21st century we would have better conditions through globalisation and greater tolerance regarding political situations. But today there are more borders than ever and it seems as if nations are strongly divided. We have to start really dealing with this situation instead of repressing it. I believe that all these crises are manmade, so we have to find a solution now. We all have to believe that we have the power to bring about change. If we lose that faith, we will also lose our hope, our trust and our humanity.

Human Flow will be released in UK cinemas on 8 December.