It began in July 2015 when it became known that Ai Weiwei had got his passport back and would be moving from Beijing to Berlin...
Eva: I contacted his studio in Beijing to ask if I could do a report on Ai Weiwei when he arrived here in Berlin. The answer was that he would first need some peace and quiet but that, once he had got settled, I could even make a longer film about him. I already knew Ai Weiwei. As a freelance journalist I had lived in Beijing for a couple of years and had reported on him several times, starting in 2007.
Bettina: Eva asked if I would join her in making a film about Ai Weiwei in Berlin. The idea was to accompany him for a whole year. How did his time in detention affect him? How is the city changing him? At that point we had no idea what would happen over the course of the year. But what soon became clear was that Ai Weiwei’s central topic of interest was the refugee crisis. I accepted Eva's offer. I had seen Ai Weiwei at the documenta art show in Kassel in 2007 and had found him really interesting, if enigmatic. So I was curious.
Eva: We started shooting in November 2015. Ai Weiwei had taken up his Einstein Visiting Professorship at the Berlin University of the Arts. In December we went with him to Lesbos. That was his first encounter with refugees who had crossed the Aegean from Turkey in rubber dinghys. Ai Weiwei wanted to go out to sea in a motorboat and look for refugees who were still under way. He wanted to understand what was going on. Suddenly a dinghy appeared on the horizon, empty, abandoned. The refugees had already been rescued by the coast guard. Ai Weiwei got into the dinghy, and we filmed him. He wanted to get a feeling for what the refugees might be feeling. He drifted, alone, far out to sea, even though he cannot swim. We were worried.
Bettina: If you want to keep up with Ai Weiwei, you have to be quick. If you are carrying a camera and have a backpack full of equipment that is quite a challenge. He walks fast, though it never looks like he is hurrying. We decided we would shoot film with a small camera, and for that we’d need sturdy shoes. Accompanying Ai Weiwei means being not only fast but also flexible. He can change his plans and alter his course at any moment. A whole flock of employees manage to keep up, as if by magic.
Eva: The central question for us was: Why is the refugee crisis his big theme now, and does that have anything to do with his own biography? Over the course of the year Ai Weiwei travelled a lot, to places where the global refugee crisis was being played out, to shoot material for his documentary, ‘Human Flow’. He was very welcoming to us, but we could not always be there with him. There were things going on 24/7. Ai Weiwei is restless, always keen to get to work, out and about every day, and always on the move.
Making our documentary was a balancing act: What do we include and what do we leave out? It was impossible to do everything. We decided to omit Kenya, Turkey, Lebanon, and the major exhibitions in Vienna, Florence, Prague, and Amsterdam. Instead, we went with Ai Weiwei to Idomeni – before the unofficial refugee encampment was cleared. Thousands were living there in tents, in the rain, in the mud, near a border crossing from Greece to Macedonia, hoping to get through one day. This was the starting point of what came to be called the Balkan Route. We also accompanied him to Gaza, and also New York, to return to places related to the years he had spent there and to see his exhibition. One of the most memorable trips for us was Ai Weiwei’s visit to his mother in Beijing. It gave us a glimpse into his family’s history.
Bettina: Ai Weiwei can cook too! He makes Chinese dumplings for his family and friends. We got to try them and they were very tasty. I also picked up a little Chinese. 'Nanmin de yifu' means 'the clothes of refugees'. For me, Ai Weiwei remains something of an enigma, even though he says, "I am exactly the person you see."
Bettina and Eva: Many people ask us if Ai Weiwei is more into art or commerce, if there are differences between Ai Weiwei as an artist, political activist and person, why he is less vocally critical of China now that he is in Berlin. A lot is expected of him here. We tried to look at things from a different perspective. And all the while he was already planning and working on new projects. He never sits still.
Eva Mehl and Bettina Kolb