Ai Weiwei is the most famous political artist in the world and a tireless human-rights activist and critic of the Chinese government. Now he’s made his first feature-length documentary film, Human Flow, about the global refugee crisis. The film opens in New York and Washington on October 13 and Los Angeles October 20, and other cities after that. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: In 2011, you were held in prison for 81 days, with two guards standing a few feet away from you 24 hours a day. When you were released, you made a piece about that for the Venice Biennale in 2013, with sharply detailed dioramas of you in your cell. After you were released, you weren’t allowed to travel for four years. In your new film, Human Flow, we see you on the beach on the island of Lesbos, where boatloads of desperate refugees are landing. You are wading into the water, and pulling refugees out of the ocean with one hand, while with the other you are shooting video with your iPhone. How did you get from that tiny cell in Beijing to that beach on the island of Lesbos?
Ai Weiwei: When I was in this detention, until the last moment, the last day, they were still talking to me about how I’m going to be sentenced to 10 years. And then suddenly that evening I got released. Then, after many years of house arrest, they just handed back my passport, and said you’re now ready to travel. I moved to Berlin, because a university gave me a professorship there. So I teach there and also I have a studio there. But at that time I’m never thinking to make a film. Until I come to Lesbos, on the shore.
JW: When you were imprisoned, you were confined in a tiny space with two guards watching you every minute. What Human Flow shows is sort of the opposite. You were not allowed to leave, but millions of people had to leave their homes. You were watched every minute, but nobody is looking at them. Human Flow seems to portray the opposite of your own experience—but maybe not.
AiWw: It seems opposite, but it’s quite close. People have been forced into a state of movement, but stillness is one condition of movement.
JW: You have said that you think of yourself as a refugee, like those people coming ashore on Lesbos.
AiWw: Yes. If I look at my history, my father was exiled when I was a boy, our family being sent to the most remote area in northwest of China. The border area. As far as possible. I grew up in a condition of humiliation and discrimination. My father was named an enemy of the people and the party, badly criticized and put into hard labor, and I grew up in that kind of condition. We were internally displaced, and faced a lot of discrimination.