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Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow
Still from Human FlowAi Weiwei

What we learned from Ai Weiwei’s discussion with Jon Snow

At the Barbican on Monday night, the artist and activist premiered his new film, Human Flow, and highlighted the global scale of the refugee crisis and our collective responsibility

Beginning and ending with stunning, meditative shots of refugee boats – tiny silhouettes against a vast blue sea – Ai Weiwei’s new film, Human Flow, highlights the global scale of the refugee crisis. Capturing the migration of persecuted peoples who flow, homeless, from nation to nation, desperately seeking shelter against a stormy tide of discrimination, hostile legislation and abject poverty.

It is impossible to grasp and difficult to imagine the displacement of 65 million refugees worldwide but Weiwei’s ambitious film charts the harrowing experiences of individuals as well as the sheer scale of the problem across 23 countries. Despite the brutally honest depiction of a worsening situation, certain moments of respect, of tender interaction and of kind connection between Weiwei, volunteers and refugees shine through with humanity.

In a live broadcast from The Barbican’s Milton Court Hall, Ai Weiwei joined Jon Snow in conversation with Lord Alf Dubs, Josie Naughton, head of Help Refugees, and Maya Ghazal, a young Syrian Refugee. Here’s what we learned from their frank discussion.

“We are not making a film about one family or one person but rather to see the humanity, to see the human flow in this modern history” – Ai Weiwei

ON THE GLOBAL NATURE OF THE CRISIS

Ai Weiwei: First (it) is a personal journey, I want to know what is really happening globally. We see so many stories on the news or social media, what refugee really means in different conditions – it all has a history. I wanted to know a little bit more than that.

Certainly, this is a global crisis and it's not regional, so we have to understand refugees have a very different meaning in different locations. Some can be war casualties and some can be environmental problems or famine, and more and more will be related to climate change in the future. So this has to become a global consciousness, not only for ordinary people but mostly for politicians, who are the decision makers who can come up with some policies in dealing with this situation.

ON THE POSSIBILITY OF A WORLD WITHOUT BORDERS

Ai Weiwei: I don't really think that's possible, honestly. I think that human societies like geographical divisions: mountains, rivers. But our understanding in our minds and in our hearts, we don’t have to have borders (here), we only have to recognise humanity as one.

WHY HE CHOSE TO FOCUS ON DEPICTING THE SCALE OF THE REFUGEE CRISIS

Ai Weiwei: When we started to make this film I had to make a decision (on) why I needed to make a film, because there is so much news footage and social media coverage on the refugee crisis. So the decision was, I have to follow my instinct which (was) to get more knowledge on a global scale. We are not making a film about one family or one person but rather to see the humanity, to see the human flow in this modern history. Some refugees have been there [for] over 60 or 70 years through generations, some have just freshly come out from the war zones. (It was) a clear decision.

ON THE GROWING NUMBER OF REFUGEES

Ai Weiwei: “I sense (that) the number will grow higher, obviously, with environmental problems, and with Africa's population booming, it's already very hard for them to survive. But I feel that the situation is not getting any better, I think we are going to face a bigger refugee condition in the future.

ON OUR COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY AND HOW WE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE

Ai Weiwei: I think this so-called crisis is mostly made by humans, and so, if we want to really change the conditions – and this is absolutely possible – it’s not history's responsibility. We all face this responsibility. It’s not mercy, it’s not somebody begging us to do it, but we have to do it to improve our understanding of ourselves and to see ourselves and our society as a society which can benefit everybody.

Jon Snow: You are an amazing example, because you have broken out of simply being an artist, not that you were every simply an artist, you've always been an activist but you've used your art to wake people up, and so if everybody thinks of some dimension of what they do and can turn it to the good advantage of raising consciousness and awareness, of dispossession, of poverty, of inequality and of homelessness by virtue of refugeedom, that seems to me that that would be a great start. Would it not Josie?

Josie Naughton: It really would, I think that everybody watching tonight, everyone should know, sometimes it can seem scary to be that person to try and make a change but everyone has the power to do it. It can be doing something really small like buying a sandwich for a homeless person, or smiling at a homeless person, or it can be doing a fundraiser, or it can be going and volunteering. We all have the power in us to make a difference and decide to choose love. You can do anything and that’s kind of exciting, and that’s where the hope lies in all of this.

Watch the Human Flow trailer below: