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A new doc traces Ai Weiwei’s journey into the refugee crisis

Ai Weiwei Drifting paints an intimate picture of the Chinese artist and activist

Ai Weiwei, whose artwork has passionately opened up the horrors and humanity of the refugee crisis worldwide, has had a year of his life chronicled in a new documentary. Eva Mehl and Bettina Kolb, two journalists, follow the artist and activist in Ai Weiwei Drifting to create a moving portrait of Ai.

The documentary captures Ai working on some of his most prominent projects across a year, and shows him engaging with the refugee crisis in Greece and Gaza across 2015. We also see the artist teaching in the University of the Arts in Berlin, and his own major exhibition openings.

“Since 2014 more than 10,000 refugees have died in the Mediterranean. I document everything: I think records are needed for future generations,” Ai says in the film. 

He adds: “There’s no words to describe this. I’m trying to see how civilisation and humanity function, how they treat these people, how they share the very essential values and dignity of human beings.”

Ai also unpacks his 2011 arrest and imprisonment, detailing how the Chinese government took his passport for four years.

He says: “This abduction was meticulously planned. They put a black hood over my head. I didn’t know where they were taking me. Some secret place…. There were two soldiers watching over me all day. They never moved, never spoke. I had to sit there, I wasn’t allowed to move either. If I wanted to use the toilet or drink water, I was only allowed to when they let me. 

“I still have nightmares sometimes,” he asserts. “They will never go away.”

 One of his more divisive works, where he re-enacted the 2015 photo of Alan Kurdi, a drowned Syrian toddler, is also explored in the doc. He outlines how he found the outrage absurd, when anger should have been centred on the horrific numbers of children dying in Aleppo every day.

There are also rare moments that give a glimpse into Ai’s more personal life: visiting Beijing to see his mother, watching TV with his son, cooking in his Berlin home.

Bettina Kolb, one of the filmmakers, detailed in DW: “Weiwei was an enigma to me. I never knew what was going on in his head, but one thing was clear: His thinking is super-fast.”

“He just sat down with them to spend a little time with them,” Eva Mehl said.

The artist’s own film, Human Flow, which looks at displacement across the world, is currently in post-production. For that project, Ai captured footage of people fleeing their homes across 25 countries, including Palestine and Afghanistan.

Ai WeiWei Drifting from Deutsche Welle premiered in Berlin June 13, and is available to watch online here