Photo Credit: Courtesy of Amazon

Ai Weiwei is a man known for his massive art projects, such as the 32-foot “Forever Bicycles” exhibit downtown, but he has taken on something massive, even for him: filming the world’s refugee crisis.

In his new documentary, “Human Flow,” a project that employed over 200 crew members, Weiwei travels to 23 countries to interview refugees, observe resettlement camps and join rescue workers.

For a crisis that exceeds World War II in terms of displaced people, Weiwei uses drones to film the breadth of these camps and their inhabitants, highlighting cramped conditions and fragile housing.

Andrea Mellard, director of Public Programs and Community Engagement at The Contemporary Austin, which hosts two of Ai Weiwei’s exhibits, said drones provide a symbolic point of view for refugee camps.

“Drones flatten out a perspective and shows the arbitrariness of borders, the sameness of camps,” Mellard said. “Individual refugees become a mass of people, and they’re all equally deserving of dignity … He’s made a truly cinematic documentary, epic in its view.”

Weiwei does not shy from capturing desperation up close. In Bangladesh, he visits Rohingya refugees describing brutal violence by the Myanmar military, which the U.N. last month described as “ethnic cleansing.”

In the West Bank, Weiwei observes Palestinians — many of whom have lost their homes to Israeli settlements — who have their workdays interrupted by frequent power outages.

Even the more fortunate refugees that are able to avoid the outdoor tents bear struggles that Weiwei thinks are overlooked. One refugee girl and her family in Tempelhof, Germany, simply sit and wait for the days when they can finally go home.

Mellard said Weiwei’s strong, personal focus on refugees stems in part from his background of also fleeing a hostile country. Growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution, Weiwei and his poet parents were sent to labor camps during a period of crackdowns and purges.

In 2011, the Chinese secret police imprisoned Ai Weiwei for his outspoken activism for civil rights and his criticism of the government. He was imprisoned for 81 days.

“(Ai Weiwei) has been a refugee in some form for his entire life,” Mellard said.

His goal for “Human Flow,” Mellard said, is to open the audience’s empathy toward refugees and portray the lack of humanity when a country closes its borders to them.

“(Weiwei’s) concern for free speech has evolved into a concern for free movement,” Mellard said.

Feeling stunned after seeing the film, Grace Mueller, a recent UT corporate communications graduate, said Weiwei’s footage of the refugee camps and their prevalence across continents resonated with her.

“There’s an awe factor,” Mueller said. “You see the magnitude of all the camps and all the people inside. It kind of, in some ways, puts each country on the same playing field. Everyone who is in this situation are humans, and they’re lacking so many fundamental needs.”

This combination of three file photos shows some of the Chinese activists and dissidents who have commented on the Chen Guangcheng incident. From left to right

BEIJING — On Thursday, legal activist Chen Guangcheng told the United States that he wants to leave China, deepening a diplomatic dispute. His case has drawn comments from other prominent Chinese activists and dissidents — both to Chen directly and in other forums.

TENG BIAO, human rights lawyer and Chen’s friend, in a phone call to the activist urging him to leave:
“You know that if you don’t leave this time, perhaps in the short term they won’t dare to do anything, but the revenge will be very terrible. It is not as simple as four years’ imprisonment or house arrest for 2 1/2 years. Their torture will be very frightening, very unbearable. ... The government hates you. ... We understand very well that you don’t want to leave. You would like to stay and try to do something. But you have to understand that you will not be able to do anything if you stayed. ... You’ve already done so many things and made so many sacrifices for China’s human rights and freedom. We all don’t want to see you make even more sacrifices.”


LI JINSONG, Chen’s lawyer, paints a more optimistic picture of what he imagines the activist’s life might be like if he stayed in China:
“The power of those gangster-like officials who once persecuted Chen Guangcheng, like the city party secretary and public security bureau director in Shandong, can by no means challenge the power of the central government or continue to hurt Chen Guangcheng. So I think his personal safety has absolute protection. And his freedom, within his regular life, is guaranteed too. I mean, for the family to stay together, freely work and freely live their life, there should be no problem. But for him to accept media interviews and freely defend human rights and receive petitioners, I don’t think he really has total freedom to do those things.”


AI WEIWEI, dissident artist:
“I think the U.S. side has made efforts on this issue but they probably don’t wish to see this issue stretch on or become more complicated. ... Of course for him personally, by running to the U.S. Embassy he is looking for some kind of protection. But his is not an isolated incident; it is tied into China-U.S. relations. And regardless of what happens, both sides will pursue their own interests. If the family’s security can be ensured and they can live safely, I believe Chen Guangcheng would still be willing to live in China. But if he doesn’t trust any of this — and he has enough reason not to trust them, because a lot of people’s situations are not good — then of course we can only see how things develop.”

LIU SHASHA, an activist who tried several times to visit Chen in the past year while he was still under house arrest, says he should stay to keep fighting:
“We worked so hard and suffered so many beatings in order for Guangcheng to be able to come out and work together with us. We hoped that Guangcheng could freely walk in his hometown, in his motherland. Not for him to be forced into exile, to leave the prison of his home for the spiritual prison of being barred from his homeland. A free Guangcheng must first be free in his own country!”


HU JIA, fellow activist and a close friend, said earlier this week before Chen left the embassy that if Chen left the country the injustice he suffered would go unpunished:
“Even if his family — that is, his wife, mother and children — were able to travel with him to the U.S., there would be no one to pursue those past injustices. In other words, the abuse and persecution he suffered would have been for nothing. Those criminal government officials would continue to act in an unfettered way, above the law. They would not have to shoulder any responsibility for their crimes. I feel that the Chen Guangcheng incident should be seen as an important opportunity, so I think there should be no rush, he should not hastily go to the United States, because from what I understand from meeting with him, I think that that is also not his personal desire and it’s not what we think is the best way for him either.”


YU JIE, a dissident writer and friend of Chen’s who left China for exile in the United States last year after being detained and tortured by Chinese authorities, says he supports Chen’s decision to leave:
“It is a better choice for him if he and his family are able to go to America. He has already left the embassy, and I think that was a very dangerous decision. I think the American officials have done a bad job. They should be aware that the danger that Chen Guangcheng faces in the future is very large. They should not have let him leave the embassy. ... It’s a sign of the softness of Obama’s attitude toward China. He has placed trade above human rights. One cannot blame Chen Guangcheng for changing his mind because in the days that he was in the embassy he was not able to talk to his friends to obtain more information, so on his own it would have been difficult for him to make an accurate assessment.”


HUANG QI, a veteran activist who runs a rights monitoring group in the western province of Sichuan, says Chen is just one of many people in China who need the international community’s support:
“We believe that in today’s China, what happens to the millions of rights defending petitioners, the Falun Gong practitioners, the religious sufferers, and the political dissidents is still worthy of our in-depth attention. In this huge group of victims there are a lot of people who are still suppressed by the authorities, they are also in urgent need of international attention. Only when the whole society pays attention to the human rights situation in China, particularly long-term concern for the victims at the lowest levels of society, toward the weak ones who have no rights, no influence, no fame, only then can one truly promote the in-depth development of China’s human rights movement and improve the rights situation.”


LIU XIAOYUAN, a prominent rights lawyer in eastern China’s Jiangxi province who has represented many dissidents including Ai Weiwei:
“This incident should not have happened in the first place. If China is really a country with rule of law, then how could a local government use illegal tactics to hold a person under house arrest for so long? This incident might prompt high-level officials in charge of so-called ‘stability maintenance’ to stop further restricting activists after they have been released from prison, because this will generate public attention and the activists will escape and seek help from foreign embassies. I hope the authorities will learn these lessons from this incident.”


Printed on Friday, May 4, 2012 as: Chinese dissidents discuss Chen case