Transcript: Ep. 2 - Ai Weiwei on why the refugee crisis is borderless | May 28, 2019

You're listening to
a TVO podcast.
Hey, it's Colin here. I want
to tell you about something
brand new from our friends
over at the Onpoli team.
It's the Onpoli newsletter,
and you can get it in
your inbox twice a week.
It's a newsletter brought to you
the people who make
the Onpoli podcast,
which is hosted by my buds
John Michael McGrath
and Steve Paikin.
If you haven't listened to
Onpoli yet, you really should.
You've never heard Ontario
politics being discussed
this way before,
and now you can get behind
the scenes of the podcast,
with their brand new
Onpoli newsletter.
Subscribe now.
Go to
and subscribe today.
(Light funk playing)
Hi, I'm Colin Ellis and
you're listening to On Docs,
a podcast about documentaries
and the stories they tell.
Today's guest is one of the
world's most renowned
contemporary artists.
He's been a thorn in the Chinese
government's side for years,
he's been arrested,
he's won awards for his
art and his activism,
and hey, he makes
documentaries, too.
It's Ai Weiwei.
Today, we're talking about
his new documentary
The Rest.
It got its
North American premiere
at the Hot Doc Festival in
Toronto last April.
(Funk music playing)
The doc is an unflinching look
at the human face of an issue
most of us only ever hear about
in news reports.
Ai Weiwei and his team travelled
to countries all over Europe
to film and speak with the men,
women and children
fleeing war-torn countries
like Syria and Afghanistan.
Many of them find themselves
stuck in refugee camps
in Lebanon
or being teargassed by police on
the Greek-Macedonian border.
(People chattering)
Get out! Get out!
It's a sequel of sorts to his
2017 film
Human Flow,
which also looked
at the refugee crisis.
Both films show
just how desperate
their lives have become
and the toll it takes on them
physically and emotionally.
It also exposes the reluctance
and outright hostility
many countries have
towards refugees.
It's not just someone being
harmed by war or by famine.
It's our heart, our deep heart,
our understanding
of our humanity,
about who we are and how we
relate to each other.
It was an incredible experience
Ai Weiwei in person.
And so, without further ado,
here is our conversation.
Well, first, let me just say
I really enjoyed
The Rest
Human Flow,
so thank you for making them.
Thank you. It's quite surprising
both films are received better
in Toronto than anywhere else.
Really? Why do you think that
I have no idea. It's--
you know, we have statistics,
you know, which city
people are more passionate
or watching those films,
and it turned out to be
Toronto have much better
viewership than Germany.
Which, you know, Germans have
1.2 million refugees,
but they are much more...
defensive on that issue.
I think maybe Canada have
a much more mixed migrants
from different areas,
they want to share or to see,
you know, what is a
different perspective
on this issue.
Why did you chose
the title of
The Rest?
(Ai Weiwei chuckling)
The Rest
have two meanings,
first is come from the
900 hours of footage
when we were shooting--
we added to the first film,
Human Flow.
So, we have a large amount,
900 hours of footage.
So, in there is
a lot of interviews
and personal stories
in relating to individuals.
So, we don't-- so, that is the
rest of the material.
But symbolically,
the refugee is the rest,
is someone which
the waste of our society.
And for whatever reason,
they become a refugee.
It's, um...
There are...
We don't see them as part of us.
So, it's a tragic situation.
We don't-- we don't come with
this conclusion
that's part of our body.
We're as the one.
So, that's why we have the
Yeah, I also thought
maybe, like,
they're also searching
for rest as well.
Also that-- that also is true.
They all have their own reasons
to come,
they have relatives or their
brothers or sisters
in different locations.
They want to be united.
And this is-- maybe that's the
and also--
argument they would have
is they want to stay together.
Mm-hmm. It's referred
to as a crisis,
a global refugee crisis,
or I think you refer
to it as a human crisis.
Do you think people
are listening?
I don't know if people
are listening or not.
I think people in general
forget where we come from
and forget the struggles
through history
of human struggle.
And that is, um...
That is a true tragic.
It's not just someone being
harmed by war or by famine.
It's our heart, our deep heart,
our understanding of our
about who we are
and how we relate to each other,
when those believes
have been shadow--
or shattered and they're being
it worries me and it worries--
should worry all the
people in the society,
who we are and what kind of
society we're trying to build.
Why do you think
people are, I guess,
choosing to forget?
Uh-huh. That's a--
That's really needs
to be examined by...
...psychologists or, you know...
We say people have been hurt,
but then later,
you say the same people hurt
other people the same way.
So, why? I don't know about it.
It's kind of human behaving,
but that's a fact.
You wrote in
The Guardian a while ago
that the refugee crisis isn't
about refugees, it's about us.
What'd you mean by that?
I think, if, today,
we still cannot have this kind
of understanding,
the whole society as one,
whole humanity as one,
if we don't see the bleeding is
really come from our own skin,
you know, the wound is
just from part of us,
then if we don't stop it, well,
eventually, it ruins the whole
And I always think that's the
only way we can survive
is to see humanity as one,
and otherwise, we'll be easily
divided by politicians,
by different kind
of interest groups
to fight with each other,
and to refuse others.
Then, we create
a very dangerous society.
Do you think anything has
changed since--
between when
Human Flow
and when
The Rest
coming out this year,
has much changed
at all for refugees?
Maybe some changes, but not to
the favoured direction,
but to even worse.
You see, um, politicians or
countries start to make policies
to make it more difficult,
to stop the people
desperately need help.
And, uh, it doesn't--
it changed, but it doesn't
change for better.
There's a lot of footage of--
you shot in-- like, in 23
countries, if that's right?
We shot it around 23 countries.
Yeah. Well, in Europe, in
I mean, you were in France, you
were on the Macedonian border.
And I'm just thinking of these
images of, you know,
riot police and shelters that
refugees have erected,
where they've been torn down.
It's hard to believe
that we are in Europe.
(Pop music playing)
(Dramatic music playing)
(Man speaking in
foreign language)
(Gun firing)
I don't know where am I go--
(Men shouting indistinctly)
Kind of made me wonder
why European countries in
particular are so--
why are they struggling
with this so much?
I think, basically,
not to criticize Europeans,
but human beings are selfish,
deeply selfish,
and deeply have no compassion
with others.
Very often they pretended to
point out that other countries,
other nations doesn't
have that possibility.
But when it come to
their own countries,
you can clearly tell, you know,
it's the same, you know.
It happens in many,
many third world nations,
where you see tragic.
But after globalization,
you see this kind of colonial
ideas and this kind of struggle
has been reflected in
And today's Europe or the west
are very much lived
upon this benefit
of the globalization.
But that, at the same time,
creates a lot of
regional conflicts
or poor and rich
so widely divided.
So, those ones,
they all know it.
But we all know the border
is not the border drawn
on the map, you know?
We all see the corporations,
you know,
China, Canada, or US, or Europe,
they have a lot of, a lot of,
much deeper connections,
which is beyond the physical
map, you know,
or the wall they
try to build, you know,
between Mexico
and the United States,
which is just an illusion.
And we know the,
uhh, the (Unclear)
is much deeper
and much profound.
But we don't-- same time,
we don't want to recognize it
because we still enjoy this
moment, you know,
it seems we all
profited from it.
But eventually, it
will become big disaster
if we don't recognize that.
Yeah. I guess going forward,
what do you think is, I guess,
the worst case scenario
if more countries--
not just Europe,
but I guess Canada,
the US, China perhaps,
Gulf states, if they don't do
more to resolve this crisis?
It will create more monsters,
more disasters.
This is inevitable.
If you see the Gulf nations,
you know, have somebody murdered
in their own embassy
and, you know, it's an
American journalist
from Washington Post,
everybody see it,
everybody know it,
but nobody care.
So, then, how do you evaluate
about our, you know,
national politics
and-- you know.
So, if we simply
put us with no choice,
do we accept that to say,
"Oh, that's normal"?
Okay then,
what is not normal, you know?
Everything can be normal
if we let those criminals
or those-- obviously,
a criminal act
to maintain as nothing happened.
So, we become a part
of the criminal.
It's just so simple
because we accept it.
Do you ever meet with
politicians? Do they ever--
do you talk to them
about the refugee crisis
or do they seek
your advice at all?
Like, what do you say to them?
I don't think they want to
listen to me.
I often meet politicians,
but, of course, they don't want
to listen to those,
they wasn't listen to my
about Chinese government,
But I think there's much more
profound crisis in the world.
It's not Chinese.
Chinese a part of the problem.
So, people don't
want to listen to
what they don't
want to listen to,
and that's very clear.
And, yeah, but as an artist,
I'm not going to, you know--
that creates their life,
but rather to speak out
about my true feelings.
I'm wondering if the refugees
that you spoke to in this film
and in
Human Flow,
how much--
how badly do they want
to actually return
to their countries?
How badly do they
want to go back to Syria
and back to Iraq
and back to Afghanistan?
Now that that the trip,
the travel is finished,
what is the hope?
What is the next goal?
What is the future?
There's two facts after
I visited these 23 nations,
after meeting...
100,000-some refugees.
We went to 40 biggest camps.
One fact is none of them,
not a single of them want
to leave their home.
Their home can be poor or can be
most unthinkable conditions,
but that's their home, you know?
For generations, they're there.
Until one day,
that been destroyed.
They have to leave,
otherwise, they will die.
They see the houses burning,
they see their
women being raped,
they see their-- you know,
they see everything
we think is not acceptable.
So, very small proportion
manage to come to Europe,
very small.
Less than 5% of refugees
ever can make it to Europe.
Over 90% are being hosted by
other nations, neighbours,
which only take 2%
of our world gross.
You know, Lebanon,
Turkey, Jordan,
all those nations,
have the refugee population
close to their residency
or even sometimes
it can be higher in many cases.
So, we can see that's a fact--
nobody wants to
leave their home
until somebody
destroys that home,
and the purpose, they will
never even understand why.
And, uh, second--
everybody, when they
come to a new location,
it will take
them not just years,
but generations to be--
to feel they're
comfortably settled
or integrated to the society.
Almost not possible.
The German society, in Berlin,
you see taxi drivers,
they're all from Turkey.
If you ask them, they're second
or third generation of Turkish.
They all drive taxis.
And, you know, Germany, it's a--
and, of course,
when the nations
accept refugees,
they are basically
lacking of the labour.
You know, it's like two million
or three millions of shortage
of the people can work
for the society.
But it's not easy
for those refugees.
They've been neglected.
They've been waiting for years,
waiting for some information
to deal with that.
I mean, think about if
you're a young person,
you're perfectly healthy,
you want to work,
but you cannot work.
You always have to live on
somebody giving you
a few bucks to survive.
What kind of insult?
What kind of imagine
you have on yourself?
How your children
will look at you?
And those people, they remain,
average, 25 years as
a refugee globally,
those people being
recognized as a refugee.
But most people, they're not
even given refugee stat--
I mean, identity.
They're never being seen
as a refugee,
and they're basically
existing but transparent.
They're nobody.
They're not individuals.
Their history has disappeared.
They cannot speak
their language,
the religion, or belief,
or neighbourhood.
Nothing's there.
How could they survive?
So, every of them, I would say,
if their home's still there,
or becomes safe,
they want to go back.
That's so clear, you know?
And I see refugees has been
out for three generations,
when they see me,
they still hold a key of that
door in their hands.
That street is
also disappeared, you know?
That town is not existing.
But they still hold the key.
They think that
belonged to them.
You're interviewing people at,
I guess,
the lowest point in their lives,
and, you know, I'm thinking of a
few people in the film that,
you know,
they break down crying,
and I guess I wonder, you know,
you said you'd interviewed
so many refugees,
does it ever, I guess,
personally affect you,
their stories?
I don't know how
I'm personally affected.
I grew up as a refugee.
My father was punished,
exiled for 20 years.
So, till today, I realize,
"Okay, I never
had a home myself."
You know, we've been
pushed out from our home.
Then, our whole life,
we are being forced to go to
another place and another place.
None of them are decided by us,
and then we cannot even say no
as an enemy of the state,
and you only worry
about your life.
As long as you
can still be alive,
there's nothing
you can't bargain.
Is there something about
that are the right way to tell
this story of refugees?
it serves the purpose for me
to understand the world
and have to face those people.
It's not I have
the documentary idea,
then I start to make
a documentary.
I always pull myself
into the situation.
Now, I realize that
should be documented.
I realize what I have seen
should also to let other people
have a chance to also see it.
You know,
we are living in the world,
we cannot say-- the technical
matter are very simple,
you can easily record anything.
So, that put us in a strong
moral challenge,
we cannot say we don't know it,
we haven't seen that.
So, people, once they see it,
the situation,
facing the situation,
then they have to come to
their own conclusion.
Do you want to continue making
stories about refugees
or do you want to do
something else?
Well, it's not I want to
make refugee films.
It's I feel it's my obligation.
And I have the liberty to travel
and I have-- easy for
me to record stories,
and I just put it in
this kind of sharable,
you know, film.
You know, I'm making
another one this year
and also about Myanmar,
and Rohingya refugees.
So, it comes so natural.
It's not a big decision.
Well, I want to
thank you so much
for spending so
much time with me.
And again, I really was moved by
Human Flow
The Rest,
and thank you so much
for giving us this time.
Thank you. Thank you
for interviewing me.
(Funk music playing)
And that's the podcast.
Look for
The Rest
when it hits theatres.
Human Flow
is available
to stream on Netflix.
If you like what you heard,
leave us a review on
Apple Podcast,
and better yet, tell a friend.
If you want to get in touch you
can write us at
or follow me on Twitter
Thanks to producers
Chantal Braganza
and Matthew O'Mara
and production
support coordinators
Niki Ashworth
and Jonathan Halliwell.
Our podcast manager
is Hannah Sung.
We catch you
at the next screening.
(Funk music playing)

Watch: Ep. 2 - Ai Weiwei on why the refugee crisis is borderless