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Ai Weiwei on His New Doc and the Plight of the Refugee

Sixty-year-old Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous artist and dissident, has some thoughts about the new social credit system his homeland has devised to rate its 1.3 billion citizens — a scoring apparatus that takes into account not only one’s credit rating but also shopping habits and interpersonal relationships (having friends with low scores could ruin yours as well). “I think, if they had a machine, my score would break it,” he says. “I’m totally poison to that type of society. My case is so far beyond acceptable.”

The artist, who recently directed an Oscar-shortlisted documentary about refugees, was imprisoned by the Chinese government in 2011. “By controlling the population, over 60 or 70 years, they’ve already trained this whole society to behave in this ridiculous way, and to accept it,” he says. “It’s like some kind of syndrome between the trainer and trainee. They’re perfectly a pair; they deserve each other.”

Ai doesn’t put much stock in the political powers that be. Then again, why would he? He was beaten, surveilled and denied a passport by his own country. Ai’s name is still banned on the Chinese internet for crimes like photographing himself dropping a Han dynasty urn and publicizing the victims of a devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan.

Technically, then, Ai is a refugee, though he says he doesn’t feel like one. “I did experience everything that a refugee experiences,” he adds. “I saw my father being treated as an enemy and being internally exiled. Then I went to the U.S. for 12 years with no language skills or financial support. Now I’m outside of China only because it’s dangerous towards my family.”

Today he lives in Berlin, where he’s seen up close what intolerance toward Syrian refugees looks like. “Living in Berlin made me first encounter refugees personally,” he says. “Germany is still too rigid. They want to have something called German culture kept alive, which I don’t think is something to be proud of, you know?”

In a certain sense, his new film, Human Flow, represents a departure from his usual incendiary style: It’s a sober look at the suffering of 65 million people forced to flee their homes due to conflict or persecution. To create it, Ai’s team visited 23 different countries and more than 40 camps, interviewing 600 refugees from camps in Macedonia, Gaza, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Italy.

The film is visually striking, with soaring shots of refugees huddled in boats off the island of Lesbos and winding their way through the European countryside. This has led some critics to allege that Ai has aestheticized tragedy—and he has acknowledged as much in interviews. “I’ve produced a film which is kind of beautiful, but which has nothing to do with reality,” he said in an interview with Singapore Times. “It’s much worse than this.”

It’s also the kind of European documentary that isn’t afraid to leave audiences existentially miserable. In its dizzying scope, the film seems deliberately overwhelming and doesn’t concern itself with solutions — just documenting lives.

At the screening I attended at Neuehouse in Hollywood, the well-heeled audience seemed baffled about how to proceed when the lights came up. “Is there anything that gives you a shred of hope?” one woman asked, rather desperately, at the end of the Q+A.

“There is no hope for those people already being put in that position; their country already abandoned them,” Ai responded. “They come to a foreign land, an area that will never truly recognize their values from the past — their language, their religion, their habits. Our tolerance and understanding toward these people is the only thing that gives me hope.”

Another audience member questioned why the artist had chosen to hold on a particularly grisly scene: a close-up of an Iraqi woman’s mutilated body. “Can you talk about your decision to show this image, which we have seen so many times and in so many different contexts?” the woman said. “It felt so violent for me to have to watch that.”

Ai shifted in his chair a little. “I mean, this is the Iraq War — at least 300,000 people were killed,” he answered. “You shouldn’t see bodies? Are you joking? You should see bodies like an ocean.”

Generally speaking, Ai doesn’t sugarcoat. When I ask him what he makes of Trump’s amorous relationship with walls (and see-through ones at that) he says that leaders haven’t absorbed what Karl Marx saw in capitalism. “They’re not ready to face the deep problems with globalization. Of course, the easiest thing is to keep the poor poor because then their rights can be continually exploited.”

Naturally, he doesn’t believe borders should exist. “To make any kind of border as a violent obstacle to stop people from having a safe life or human dignity, that’s a crime, and it’s brutal,” he explains.

In 2016’s “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” an ambitious public art project, Ai built fences across Manhattan to draw attention to the way politicians seek to divide and control. (One, which resembled a gilded birdcage, was placed not far from Trump Tower.)

Ai sees both the U.S. and European countries becoming increasingly intolerant. “To ask someone to understand your language should be a courtesy rather than a law,” he tells me. “Danish or Finnish people all ask immigrants to understand their language. That’s an insult. They’re not a stupid people; they have their own beautiful culture and language. You cannot force anyone to speak your language.”

“We have to think: Do we want a society that has this kind of thinking and ideas, or do we want a society with different cultures and races that have different needs and can negotiate to find common ground? I think that’s a much safer society.”