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Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei turns eye to refugee crisis

Last Updated Oct 17, 2017 at 5:20 pm EDT

Ai Weiwei poses for a photograph in Toronto on Thursday, September 28, 2017. Chinese dissident and activist Weiwei travelled the globe to visit some of the world's most desperate refugee camps for his documentary, "Human Flow," a bracing look at a migration crisis that has displaced more than 65 million. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO – Chinese dissident and activist Ai Weiwei travelled the globe to visit some of the world’s most desperate refugee camps for his documentary “Human Flow,” a bracing look at a migration crisis that has displaced more than 65 million people.

But the outspoken artist says some of the greatest tragedies were found closer to home, in the relatively affluent and free countries where many of these displaced people sought sanctuary.

“Most surprising is not that those people have been victimized but (that they’re) continuously being victimized when they stepped into the so-called safe zone, which is Europe,” Ai said during a recent stop in Toronto to promote the film.

“They have been badly treated and also (have been) discriminated. And you see they will have no future.”

Ai’s pilgrimage took him to 23 countries over the course of one year, finding stories of grief and resilience in places such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, France, Greece, Germany, Italy, Kenya and Turkey.

His visual flair is evident in sweeping landscapes, carefully composed portraits and expansive drone sequences. Excerpts from poems are interspersed with snippets from newspaper headlines that crawl along the bottom edge of the frame.

The provocative artist is arguably best known for his epic art installations and prolific social media posts, but in his first feature documentary, he lends his sometimes controversial celebrity to an urgent global crisis he says demands attention from all citizens.

“The purpose of the movie and promoting it is to build the connection,” said Ai, noting the extreme gap in wealth, safety and freedoms that exist between nations.

“Of course, it’s completely disconnected. The life we have today, the tragic (thing) is really about the indifference — it’s not about people just being casualties or victimized by many, many kinds of regional problems, but rather globally and the people are not understanding those tragedies and take a blind view on those tragedies. That is the real tragedy.”

Ai appears regularly in the film, to welcome chilled survivors arriving on boats, char kebabs for refugees at one camp, and joke about trading his passport — famously seized by the Chinese government for two years — with others at another camp.

In person, he is soft-spoken and reserved. He nods in a subdued greeting but quickly whips out his smartphone to snap a picture. It turns out he’s been Instagramming throughout a full morning of interviews, tagging each post with reminders of the upcoming film.

It’s clear that his life, his art and his politics are inseparable, and he easily connects the film to his criticism of human rights abuses and Chinese corruption.

“We are all human beings, we have to stay with humanity and to fight with basic human rights,” he said. “So those rights benefit everybody, any kind of society…. Then there’s hope, there’s possibilities, because all those tragedies are also made by humans.

“We have to remember we have no choice. We’re either on the right side or on the wrong side.”

“Human Flow” opens Friday in Toronto before heading to other cities.