Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow tracks the migrant crisis
Prendre la route pour survivre.
Pour la première fois depuis la Seconde Guerre mondiale, le seuil des 60 millions de personnes réfugiées et déplacées dans le monde a été franchi. Avec Human Flow, la superstar de l’art contemporain Ai Weiwei met en lumière l’ampleur du phénomène. De la Grèce au Bangladesh, de l’Irak à la France, l’artiste chinois est allé à la rencontre de ceux qui ont dû fuir pour survivre. Au cinéma le 7 février.
Ai Weiwei is best known in Britain for filling the turbine hall of Tate Modern with millions of “sunflower seeds” for a 2010 exhibition. These seeds all looked identical but actually were all hand-made, tiny pieces of porcelain with their own little grooves and idiosyncrasies. It is easy to be reminded of these seeds in his epic new feature documentary, Human Flow. The film, shot in 23 countries, has several high angle shots of men, women and children in tented villages, in boats, or in long files, walking down endless roads. They are among the 65 million refugees in the world today who have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Ai Weiwei is telling some of their stories.
2. Ai Weiwei likes to tackle new projects from a position of near ignorance; to “come from zero”, as “innocent as a new born person”. In this case, he had visited the Greek island of
Lesbos with his son. They were on holiday when he saw scenes that rendered him speechless.
3.“You are on this beautiful beach and then you see a dinghy boat, peacefully approaching the port right in front of us. I turned on my iPhone camera and started filming. What I saw was shocking and unbelievable – a baby being handed out (of the dinghy), women climbing out. There was nobody there to receive them. I started to hear their stories.”
4. Ai Weiwei’s method of telling the refugees’ stories was pragmatic. He began by “documenting the situation”, and slowly planned his film, as his knowledge developed. He has made many art documentaries and human rights films that he shot “guerrilla warfare” style, posting them online so they could be seen immediately, but this was on an altogether grander scale. “I am very used to it, very skilful at that, but to do a documentary to cover such a complex story…” his voice tails off as he contemplates how daunting the task was. He was covering many different stories, some stretching back for generations (for example, the Gaza scenes) and some about refugees who have only very recently left their homes.
5.The situation of his subjects was changing all the time. He needed to come up with a structure that would allow him to deal with so many shifting perspectives. That is where the idea of Human Flow came in.
LEAVING TO SURVIVE
6. Earlier in his own career, Ai Weiwei’s situation was the polar opposite of those whose stories he tells. As a dissident artist in China, he spent time under house arrest and had his passport confiscated. He wasn’t allowed to leave home. In Human Flow, he is following subjects who’ve been forced to leave home. How does being deprived of the freedom to travel compare to having to travel in order to survive? It’s a question he has asked himself.
7.Even when refugees are accepted in a new community, they will rarely feel they belong. “If a plant had been cut off like this, it would die. As humans, they have a very strong surviving nature. But, still, they will live in darkness for their whole life. Don’t have the illusion they come for an economic reason,” he says. “Nobody, for an economic reason, will risk their life.” He tells heartbreaking stories about parents who send their children away to give them a better chance to survive. “The boat comes down and you see people holding children who have no parents because they can’t afford to pay the smugglers. They let the children go first.”
8. There is a touching and very intimate moment in Human Flow in which Ai Weiwei cuts a refugee’s hair. Wherever he went, he tried to show what he calls “the human touch”. The documentary captures the monotony of his subjects’ lives: Their desperate quest to keep their phones dry and charged; their constant waiting; their anxiety; their desire to “fix up a little bit”. Cutting their hair helped with that. The refugees are “proud people”, he says. “They have dignity. They are not beggars. They come to survive. They are not asking for mercy.”
9.There is a beautiful but very haunting shot in the film of a pile discarded life jackets. It can’t help but make you think of photographs of abandoned suitcases belonging to victims of the Holocaust. The image makes you pause. You wonder how Ai Weiwei reconciles his obvious desire to create striking and beautiful images at the same time that he is recording the horrific experiences of the refugees. Ask about this and he responds that he was determined to provide “beauty in the most difficult situations; in tragedy and in crisis... That beauty is brutal because it is very indifferent,” the artist concludes on a very sombre note.
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