by Malaika VazApr 10, 2020
In the light of recent uprisings in India and surrounding countries, we are forced to re-look at our perceived identities in relation to concepts of belonging and culture. With the introduction of recent legislations in India, which bring into question the citizenship of every individual, one cannot help but start to wonder why our world leaders are trying harder than ever to build higher boundary walls. With fascism rearing its ugly head, communities all over the world are facing discrimination and deportation. At a time where natural calamities are occurring more often than ever, scores of people are being displaced. This brings into question the very premise of nationalist behaviour from governments. Why are our actions rooted in the past instead of looking to the future? Over 65 million people have been left homeless and country-less due to famine, war and climate change. Will we see the emergence of humanity in an increasingly selfish world? Artist Ai Weiwei takes us through the travesty of mass migration in his 2017 documentary film, Human Flow.
In a special and unique encounter, Rohit Chawla (the then Group Creative Director, India Today) recreated the image of the three-year-old boy Aylan, a Syrian refugee, with the express intention of refocusing global attention to the continuing political refugee crisis. For this powerful image (placed as the lead/header in the article), artist Ai Weiwei was taken to a secluded beach in Lesvos.
I convinced him (Ai Weiwei) to do this (photograph) as my personal political statement of sorts, given the art installations and other work he was doing with the refugee community in Greece. – Rohit Chawla
As an artist and activist, Ai Weiwei chooses to combine striking cinematography with powerful information in this film, which takes the audience to 23 countries experiencing mass influx of refugees. Weiwei introduces us to people who have been forcibly uprooted from their country of origin and fled to other places by foot, sea or any other means possible, escaping oppression and discrimination at the cost of their livelihoods and communities.
Weiwei takes us to the Gaza Strip, Kenya, Iraq, Germany, Lebanon, Pakistan and USA where refugees have taken shelter. The film shows us the plight of these huge displaced populations, stripped of everything familiar and thrown into new waters, literally and figuratively, but still seeking out ways to rebuild themselves from nothing. The film is a testament to the human spirit but also a stark and unfiltered look at the refugee crisis. Weiwei worked with 200 crew members who collected over 1,000 hours of footage from 23 countries over the span of 12 months to create this remarkable film.
Although the refugee crisis is a globally relevant issue, some of Weiwei’s motivation for this film comes from his own childhood. As the son of an exiled man in China, he got a first-hand look at the struggles of such discrimination. After living in Europe as a young artist, Weiwei began to visit Lesbos, an island in Greece, which sees significant inflow of migrant communities. “It was a very personal experience to see them all coming from the boats — children, women and elderly people. I could see on their faces an expression of uncertainty. They were scared and had no idea what they might find in this new land. That made me want to know more about who these people are, and why they have risked their lives coming to a place they don’t understand and where nobody understands them. I had so many questions,” says the Chinese artist. This led him to set up a team to research the past and present condition of refugees all over the world.
Talking about the widespread intolerance that pervades our civilisation, Weiwei says, “Besides the Syria war, refugees have been created by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Israel-Palestinian conflicts, several African conflicts, the persecution of minority groups in Myanmar and violence in Central America. I wanted to visit all the locations around the world where refugees are arriving — first for my own understanding, but also at the same time to record on film all that we found.”
Weiwei takes us through his personal encounters with migrants and brings to our attention the real danger — the vulnerability of such communities to radicalisation and trafficking. Weiwei is a globally renowned artist who actively voices his opinion on controversial socio-political issues, an act he sees to be the responsibility of an artist. The film Human Flow premiered at the 2017 Venice Film Festival and was also selected for the Telluride Film Festival. Ai Weiwei currently lives and works in Berlin, Germany.