Ai WeiWei's first feature-length film, Human Flow, is both highly personal and vast in scale. The documentary, which is now premiering in competition at the Venice Film Festival, shows the artist cum director visiting refugee camps where he meets people who have escaped the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, across Africa and from the Israel-Palestine dispute. It's both a companion piece to and a continuation of the Chinese artist's gallery work looking at the plight of displaced persons.
"The film is large scale but at the beginning it wasn't really designed like this," he tells me.
"I started with my iPhone, we didn't really have a crew. Gradually we felt that to capture the situation properly we needed more investment, better planning and a lot of co-ordination. We are lucky that along the way, we always had people to help us."
In it, he shows that war is not the only cause of the global migration crisis. In Bangladesh, WeiWei highlights the effects of climate change; and in Africa, it is famine.
The documentary took Ai WeiWei two years to make. He travelled to more than 20 countries, visiting places as far flung as The Jungle in Calais, the Zaatari camp in Jordan and along Macedonia's border with Greece, just after the so-called Balkan-route taken by refugees travelling into Europe was fenced off, leaving people stranded and in despair.
The link between the artist and refugees has always been strong – he too considers himself to be a refugee. Soon after he was born, his father, a poet, was exiled to a labour camp in a remote part of China, accused of being an anti-Communist.
Throughout his childhood, he saw his father being mistreated by the Chinese government, treated as an enemy of the state. His family were only allowed to return to Beijing after the death of Chairman Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 70s.
Ai WeiWei enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy in 1978, where he studied animation. From 1981 to 1993 he lived in New York where his interest in art and architecture flourished. He returned to China in 1993. But it was for his online output that the artist became internationally famous, writing blogs on art, architecture and social commentary, critical of the Chinese government. He helped with the design of Beijing's Nest Stadium for the 2008 Olympics. But as the government clamped down on his work, arrests and police beatings became part of his life. After being detained in 2011, he became a cause célèbre, unable to leave China until 2015, when his passport was handed back to him and he moved to Berlin, where he now has a studio. His fame as a dissident is as well known as his artistic works.
Since arriving in Germany, the focus of his art has been on the plight of refugees. He first visited the Greek island of Lesbos in December 2015. "I wanted to see the island where the refugees were arriving," he says. "I could see in their faces an expression of uncertainty. They were scared and had no idea what they might find in this new land. That, even more, 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."
These questions led to investigations that informed his gallery work. He took more than 3,000 of the life jackets used by refugees landing on Lesbos and wrapped them around Berlin's Konzerthaus. He created an installation of refugees sitting on a boat, Law of the Journey, for the National Gallery of Prague. The photograph of himself lying on a beach in Lesbos replicates and recalls the image of dead Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi that shocked the world. In #SafePassage at the Foam Photography Museum in Amsterdam, he displayed pictures taken on his mobile phone in refugee camps in Syria, Turkey, Italy, Israel and France on the gallery walls alongside marble sculptures and films.
His penchant for taking pictures is evident when we meet in Venice. The first thing Ai WeiWei does is snap a picture of me entering the hotel ballroom he is seated in. Later, I find my picture posted on his Instagram feed.
The artist makes an impression as big as his beard and his softly spoken manner and innate curiosity giving him a Zen-like aura. He has a friendly approachable face and it's something that he exploits in the film, revealing the ease with which he can speak to refugees in the various camps.
He believes that by showing what is happening within the camps he can help the world find a solution to this crisis. "I think we have to realise that the solution is there because it's a human tragedy and the solution is seeing it. We have to understand that the situation is not really about refugees but it is about all of us and I think the solution can easily come out but it takes individuals to act, to be involved, to push the politicians, to create the right discussion. So I think we can all start from ourselves."
He makes appearances throughout the documentary, talking with the people and even cutting hair, but he is not so much a character as a visual motif tying the images from the different refugee camps together.
On putting himself in the film, he says: "To make a film like Human Flow, you are in constant struggle. Of course we always have to be emotionally involved and to put ourselves in very difficult circumstances. But at the same time, you always have to look at it from some other kind of perspective, because you're a filmmaker or an artist living parallel to the reality [that you're filming.]"
Ai WeiWei says he remains a peripheral figure to the story, preferring to maintain the focus on the refugees while he is mostly seen at work as a filmmaker. The unsettling power of Human Flow comes through the scale of the tragedy he is depicting. In place of a narrator, or even personal commentary, he puts up quotes from poets and politicians, or when the on-screen information is factual, it is attributed to the correct newspaper sources. Yet the film is not journalism – it is a record of his personal journey.
He has chosen this method because he feels that a documentary is innately limited in its capability to depict reality, "Because film compresses time. When you are watching Human Flow, you are only spending a little over two hours watching. What you do not feel is the way the experience of refugees becomes unbearable because of the length of time." Refugees spend on average 26 years away from their homes. "So the film can never really tell you the truth."
The film received a 10 minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival. Variety lauded its "true compositional beauty" while The Daily Telegraph argued that Ai WeiWei "imbues the crisis with a fresh weight and significance".
It's the work of an artist who puts humanity, rather than his own fame, at the forefront.