Ai Weiwei Explores the “Human Flow” of Refugees and Finds an America That Lost Its Conscience

The Chinese artist unveils a film and artworks that challenge us to shelter millions of people fleeing the violent collapse of their homelands.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 10:  Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei stands in one of his new art installations in Central Park, part of a series of works entitled "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors" on October 10, 2017 in New York City. Covering over 300 sites in New York City,  "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors" seeks to highlight and start a discussion on the global refugee crisis. The works can be viewed through February 11 in a variety of locations including city parks, bus shelters, newsstands and rooftops.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei stands in one of his new art installations in Central Park, part of a series of works entitled "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors" on October 10, 2017 in New York City. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images


“Do you think our asylum policy is broken? Do you really think that? That’s what you wrote,” the red-faced lawyer from Homeland Security shouted at me.

We were in immigration court at Federal Plaza in New York City. He was young and outraged that I had written those words in an op-ed and was now testifying as an expert witness on Afghanistan on behalf of an Afghan asylum-seeker. Clearly I had a conflict of interest.

“Actually I think we have a pretty good asylum policy, but we are not implementing it,” I said.

The judge interrupted.

“With all due respect, what she thinks of our immigration policy is irrelevant to why we are here today which is to determine whether there is a 10 percent chance of persecution if he returns to Afghanistan. That’s it.” I was relieved, but the Homeland Security lawyer kept on — I was a paid immigration advocate, I was biased, I was not really an expert since I had no academic expertise. The judge didn’t seem impressed by any of these arguments to disqualify my testimony, which went on for two hours.

I left the tiny courtroom. In the halls, mothers from Central America waited with young children tugging, leaning, falling, bored mostly. He’s lucky to be in New York, I thought. The judge was considerate and fair. In Texas, the judge denied the asylum-seeker’s claim and sent him to prison in Alabama where he was left to his own devices for nearly two years.

“I thought this was a country that believes in human rights,” Samey, the Afghan interpreter, often said to me from his Alabama prison cell after describing the insulting encounters he had with Immigration and Customs Enforcers.

What to say? Sometimes? Depends?

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 10:  One of Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei's new works stands in Washington Square Park and is part of a series of works entitled "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors" on October 10, 2017 in New York City. Covering over 300 sites in New York City,  "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors" seeks to highlight and start a discussion on the global refugee crisis. The works can be viewed through February 11 in a variety of locations including city parks, bus shelters, newsstands and rooftops.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

One of Ai Weiwei’s new works stands in Washington Square Park and is part of a series of works titled “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” on Oct. 10, 2017 in New York City.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images


As counterintuitive as it seems, a Chinese dissident with black-and-white goatee, puffy eyes, and a compulsive selfie habit, has come ashore Jonah-like to wake up Americans to the very question Samey posed, challenging us to see refugees in a different light. This week, Ai Weiwei’s documentary “Human Flow” opens in theaters around the world. The film is extremely personal, a poetic pilgrimage spanning four continents tracing what it means to be uprooted, homeless, waiting, a refugee. At the same time, Ai is in New York City to launch his public art project “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.” It’s loud, provocative, epic in scale. And it’s everywhere. There are 300 sites in all five boroughs of New York. Fences, gilded cages, cages with secret passages, bars over windows that had none, meshed wire locking up bus stops, all giving the lie to the promise of the Statue of Liberty, “her name Mother of Exiles,” who cries with silent lips, “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp! Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” Or at least that is what she used to cry.

“I love it here,” Ai tells me about the United States. He lived in New York in the 1980s and studied at Parsons School of Design for a bit, wandered the art scene, gardened, played blackjack, and, after 12 years, returned to China. “Unfortunately, the tolerance to accept refugees has dropped to less than half than [the] previous administration, but it’s not the number. It’s how we look at ourselves. Do we still have the self-confidence to defend human rights to help somebody who is in a desperate situation? Do we think those values are important for society and human dignity?” He shakes his head slowly sideways and back. He speaks quietly. “We have become selfish, short-sighted, and quite timid. It sends a very bad message to the world.”

We? Has he become an American citizen?

“No,” he says. “I’m Chinese. But I don’t feel I belong to any place.”

Both homeless — his friends and his mother tell him not to return to China — and a citizen of the world, Ai has been called the most powerful artist working today. He has an asteroid named after him. He himself says he’s become some sort of myth ever since the Chinese police arrested and disappeared him for 81 days in 2011. “I told the police: ‘Without you, I would never have become so noticeable as an artist,’” he said shortly after the authorities gave him back his passport in 2015. Today, his image is almost as ubiquitous as the Dalai Lama. And he’s helped make it so with his nonstop selfie posting on Instagram, and the monumental scale of his public shows, 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds filling the Tate Modern; 14,000 life jackets, bright orange, wrapped around the columns of Berlin’s 19th century music hall; hundreds of red-painted porcelain crabs spilling out of the fireplace of Blenheim Palace in England.

But it is his persecution at the hands of the Chinese, his stoicism, and his absurdist documenting of that persecution — a selfie of hospital patient Ai holding up a sack filled with the blood draining from his temple after he was punched by Chinese police; statue recreations of Ai seated, handcuffed, interrogated by two guards; Ai naked, showering, monitored by two guards — that has confirmed his iconic stature. Icon for the suffering and the politically engaged advocates and curators around him, icon even for the critics who say he is an attention-seeking and self-promoting icon of the grand con. In a secular world, icons embody the possibility of the impossible, they hold a mystical promise to transform the way people think. Can Ai Weiwei deliver?  Or is he just the messenger?


A screenshot from Ai Weiwei’s “Human Flow.”

Amazon Studios


I want the right of life, of the leopard at the spring,
of the seed splitting open
I want the right of the first man
— Nâzim Hikmet, Turkish poet

The words appear over the sea at dawn as “Human Flow” begins. A lighthouse comes into view, a boat with mountains silhouetting the horizon, a lone helicopter flies in the distance, the tones are purple, gray, the pace calm. A motorboat resolves, people in life jackets waving, tires thrown into the sea, children lifted ashore. And there’s Ai with his camera. He’s an odd, jarring image at first in this film. Why the Chinese dissident?

Now we’re in the desert. Tents as far as we can see. Dust. Iraq hosts 277,000 refugees fleeing Syria. We read that following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, 268,000 people have been killed in violent conflicts in Iraq. More than 4 million Iraqis have been forcibly displaced from their homes. A girl appears in the entryway to her tent. We travel with the camera through streets of Dresden-like devastation in Syria. The refugees in the desert camp stand for portraits in a tent. A young woman in a red blouse and plaid long skirt. The camera doesn’t move. And in the long, lingering shots, the close-up faces of refugees or police or rescue and aid workers, the sea, trainers washing their horses in the sea, a boy pushing a cart with jerry cans through a red dust storm, girls pounding dough on rocks in the mud, landscapes of beauty and destruction in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey, Greece, Germany, France, Palestine, and Kenya, our imagination is left to wander or to relive moments from our own or our family’s history.

Ai’s film crystallizes many encounters I and so many have had in the conflicts of the past two decades. I remember an Iraqi cardiologist in Baghdad who I met shortly after the Americans announced the de-Baathification of Iraqi society. I followed him as he discarded his secular Baathist attitudes and clothes. Off went the suit, on came his dishdasha — the white robe with loose-fitting bottoms, a sign of piety. He attended prayer meetings. And then left for Syria to raise money and plan for insurrection with Baathists and Islamists.

America didn’t foresee the consequences of throwing 250,000 armed young Iraqi men, and 50,000 Iraqi civil servants, to the desert winds and to anyone with a good idea for revenge. We see the consequences here with flashlights on the shores of Lesbos. There’s a fire. We hear clapping, cheering. Children grabbed, wrapped in blankets. Refugees on cellphones. They made it. Another refugee in Turkey, holds 17 ID cards. He’s in a field of mud graves. He shows a photo, “This is my brother. He’s gone completely mad.” His wife, his son, his daughter are all buried. The other son drowned at sea. “They appear in my dreams at night.” He pounds his head with his fingers as the rain falls on his face.

A subtitle appears over the sea: “In 2015 and 2016 more than a million refugees arrived in Greece. Most of them came from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.”

Screenshot from Ai Weiwei’s “Human Flow.”

Amazon Studios


Last year I received files in folders, organized with Excel by a teacher from Denver who was connected to a carpenter from Colorado and lawyers from around the U.S., all of whom were volunteering their time in Greece. By accident, they found Iraqis and Afghans in the camps in Greece who had worked for the U.S. military and had fled from their homes in fear for their lives. Many of the Afghans had a summons to appear in a Taliban court, charged with the crime of aiding the infidel.

There were hundreds. We know the stories. Some are still wandering. Some went back voluntarily or were deported. One I know, a musician with a TV company, who risked the Mediterranean journey with his wife and small children because he couldn’t take the war in Kabul any more, lost his two children in the sea and lost his mind there too. In “Human Flow” we see these men and women with backpacks, anoraks, sneakers, children, boarding the gargantuan ferries that normally transport cars and tourists to Greek islands.

“I am, thank God, strong-willed and determined,” says a young man with his son in his arms on the prow of the boat. “We are out at sea. We will reach a country that will help us, and we will return the favor.”

Maybe. Or maybe he will be one in the tide along a ribbon of road through green rolling hills, cultivated fields and corpses of trees, trekking on aching feet, holding children by the hand, in their arms, on their backs, into the woods, some sitting on the verge, then a rushing river, wading, tripping, losing shoes, only to arrive at a fence of barbed wire. The refugees, the film tells us, traveled on from Lesbos, hoping to find asylum in Germany, Sweden, and other European countries. (Noticeably omitted from the list is the United States.) By 2015, European countries started closing their borders, stranding tens of thousands in Greece.

We are at the Hungarian border. The cinematography is exquisite. Tanks roll over the wide European landscape, so familiar from World War II movies. The fence stretches for miles. Two police mounted on horses trot by. The press pool waits in the middle of the road. There are dozens of cameras.

A military officer asks a policeman: When did you last see your family?

— Last week.

And when will you travel home?

— In five days.

I hope you have an incident-free shift, says the commander in blue, and he salutes.

Amid echoes of the Cold War landscape, we read that when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, 11 countries around the world had border fences and walls. By 2016, 70 countries have built border fences and walls. Every day, 34,000 people around the world flee their homes to escape famine, poverty, and war. Sixty-five million people are displaced, a record.

Ai Weiwei, in “Human Flow,” speaks with a refugee who has been wandering for 60 days.

Amazon Studios


In 2016 the European Union and Turkey struck an agreement to stop the flow. The EU could return refugees to Turkey in exchange for promising 6 billion Euros in aid and visa-free travel to Europe. Afghanistan also struck a deal. Give us money and you can send back the refugees.

We watch police firing tear gas. Children rubbing their eyes, crying. In the dark we hear a man soothing his brother. “I don’t want to see you cry. If you want to go back to Turkey we’ll go back to Turkey tomorrow morning. If you want to go to Germany, we’ll go tomorrow. Are you not my older brother? I’ll follow you wherever you go, even to tell.” His brother can only wail.

We see the back of a woman in jeans and black coat seated at a wooden table inside a tent. She’s been roaming aimlessly for 60 days with her son. “Nobody has shown us the way. If I want to apply for asylum, how exactly? Where am I supposed to start my life? How many more days can I live like this?” She waves her hands away. It’s OK, Ai says, and gives her a bucket. She vomits.

We’re in the eye of a drone spinning over rows of white containers in the dust, descending over children running away from it. Turkey.

While Europe struggles to cope with 1.2 million refugees, the U.S. agrees to accept just 45,000 — the lowest since the Refugee Act was signed in 1980. The majority of the world’s 65 million refugees are in already strained economies; 3 million in Turkey, 2 million in tiny Lebanon, 1.3 million in tiny Jordan, millions in Kenya, Uganda, Bangladesh, Pakistan.

A screenshot from Ai Weiwei’s “Human Flow.”

Amazon Studios


The juxtapositions in “Human Flow” signify with no need for interpretation. Particularly as Ai cuts from the humans to their animals. The most arresting is in Gaza, a spit of land where 1.8 million Palestinians live like prisoners. We see Ai Weiwei and his crew interview 10 young women who’ve come from school to the beach, just for a tiny escape. They are still in Gaza. They dream of a cruise ship, traveling the world. They know it’s impossible. And then we cut to a tiger circling in a mud enclosure below. He was smuggled or escaped through the tunnels from Egypt, says a man’s voice. “Animals feel like humans. They can feel disasters. Tigers hear much better than us, the bombs around them. To keep an animal where it is not able to touch the grass, I don’t believe this is correct.”

The Palestinian man is from Four Paws. We see a montage of him and co-workers hauling a massive green container into a steel cage on the back of a truck at night. “We have to work with Jordan, with the South African authorities, with Israel and the Palestinian authorities,” he says. “It needs import export permit, a veterinary certificate, custom advisory, military approval. No one said no to help this animal have a better life.”

The next day, Laziz the tiger would be transported to an airport in Israel, flown to Johannesburg, and released.

“I call it his trip for freedom.”

A screenshot from Ai Weiwei’s “Human Flow.”

Amazon Studios


Ai appears throughout his odyssey, often looking out of place, like he doesn’t know what to do with himself. “There’s nothing to do in the camps. I have nothing to do,” he says. Except break up the tedium. Getting his hair cut, buying fruit off a truck, filming with his iPhone. Or just performing the role he has cast himself in — the witness wandering across four continents, waiting, like the refugees, for he knows not what. For divine intervention. For Godot. For something to happen. For nothing to happen. For darkness.

“Witnessing,” he says when I ask him why he says his favorite word is “act.” He goes on. “To pay attention, to gaze your vision to something probably is one of the most important acts humans can have. In the modern media we don’t give time. We can change channels or move the images with our finger. Or talk about one subject and jump. Not pay attention. Our attention span is so short. It’s the same as our emotional capacity. We cannot stay in anything for too long. We are like animals. We react to the reality and maybe we have become a new human being incapable of caring anymore.”

Do you really think so? I ask.

“I think so,” he says.

“When the refugees come to Europe there’s so little hope being offered by the society. I just couldn’t believe it. Not to help and find the excuse not to help is beyond belief.”

We know we’re in dark times, but here I have to part ways with Ai. Away from the very loud, xenophobic backlash against refugees has been an extraordinary hospitality from ordinary citizens, mayors, families in Greece, Germany, England, and elsewhere. Small towns like Altena took in refugees, citizens volunteered to have them in their homes and teach English. Mayor George Ferguson in Bristol, England, called on his citizens to take refugees into their homes. The mayor of Athens has started to work with Airbnb on a project called Open Homes, where people sign up to offer temporary housing for asylum-seekers.

There is a crisis and moral failure, as journalist Patrick Kingsley so eloquently argues in his book “The New Odyssey.” “But it’s one caused largely by our response to the refugees, rather than by the refugees themselves,” he writes. And by our response, he means the policymakers. They attacked Libyan smugglers hoping to stave off the flow, they ended rescue operations in the Mediterranean to stave the flow. In 2016, more than 5,000 refugees drowned trying to cross the sea. They reinstated the rescue operations. Kingsley again: “With each desperate scheme, politicians repeatedly ignored the reality of the situation.” No matter what the refugees will keep coming. “Had they created an organized system of mass resettlement from the Middle East in 2014 and 2015, and had this kind of scheme got going fast enough, and on a large enough scale, Europe might have been able to curb the most chaotic aspects of the crisis.”


A screenshot from Ai Weiwei’s “Human Flow.”

Amazon Studios


So where does Ai Weiwei’s act of witnessing leave us, the audience, particularly here in the United States? Are we witnesses, or are we incapable of caring anymore? Are we spectators to refugee porn or a call to arms? And if it’s a call to arms, what can we do in the face of an administration that has dropped the number of refugees we will welcome to just 45,000. We took 800,000 refugees after the Vietnam War. Even under Barack Obama, we promised to take just 10,000 Syrians. And though they will be the most vetted foreigners entering this country under any circumstances, 31 governors said they’d veto attempts to house Syrians in their states.

U.S. policies toward refugees have fluctuated wildly since the 1924 Immigration Act that set limits by national origin. The numbers have reflected the politics of the day. Today we are governed by fear. So while Germany accepts 1 million refugees, the United States, arguably responsible for wars that have led to these mass exoduses, is ducking for cover. It doesn’t have to be that way. We have the capacity and the willingness on local levels to process and take in hundreds of thousands of people.

Ai has delivered his message. It’s all he can do. On a national scale, nothing will change for now. But across the country in Georgia, Connecticut, Nebraska, New York, California, friends of refugees, lonely communities, mayors are taking cues from our northern neighbor and trying to follow the refugee sponsorship program of Canada. Churches from Brooklyn to Charlotte post signs in their windows and on their announcement boards saying “Refugees Welcome Here.” Gone is the fear-mongering rhetoric of identity and national security. “If you’re a mayor, 3,000 refugees in a town of 3 million doesn’t threaten your identity or your security because they are far better screened than tens of millions of other visitors,” says Gregory Maniatis, director of Open Society Foundations’ International Migration Initiative. At the U.S. Conference of Mayors, he says, “They speak of practical day-to-day challenges” — schooling, jobs, transportation, housing, doctors — “as opposed to the abstractions: Are they going to blow us up or change who we are?”

Emanuel Ransom was the first African-American mayor in Clarkston, Georgia, a town of 15,000 that has welcomed more than 1,000 refugees a year for the past two decades. Ransom used to see the Ku Klux Klan marching past his house in the 60s. Yet he first got involved in city politics because he was worried about the refugees, he didn’t think they had a place in Clarkston. Then he became mayor. He got to know the Burmese and Bhutanese and Syrians and Afghans and Tibetans, 80 percent of whom were employed and paying taxes. Asked in a documentary a few years ago how he felt about his past view of the refugees, he said, “Like an ass actually. Because I knew better.”

Top photo: Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei stands in one of his new art installations in Central Park, part of a series of works titled “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” on Oct. 10, 2017 in New York City.

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