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Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's new film, The Rest, is showing at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto.

Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

The Chinese visual artist, filmmaker and activist Ai Weiwei, a political exile now living in Berlin, visited Toronto this week to present his new film The Rest at the Hot Docs Film Festival. The film is a sequel to Human Flow, his 2017 documentary about the global refugee crisis. Ahead of its premiere, The Globe and Mail’s Kate Taylor spoke with Ai about migration, politics and the nature of international celebrity.

Why make a second film about migration?

It’s a sad subject, but the emotional involvement is like a love affair. Physically, emotionally, you are so involved. We have 900 hours of footage, and Human Flow only took a little part of that. We realized it’s not enough to just give one image of this global condition. There can be many smaller stories like what the refugees themselves think about their condition, without experts or analysts, ordinary people talking about their feelings or experience.

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[It’s] smaller scale, more personal, more detailed, but mostly focused on the refugees when they have arrived in Europe. We all know they come from disaster, war; they have been forced out, they are all trying to find the land which can give them a moment of peace. Less than 5 per cent of refugees come to Europe, the land of promise, of democracy, of human rights. Most of them stay in the neighbouring nations – Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey. The focus is on the few who come to Europe; did they find the land they feel will be safe for them?

Every state has its own policy; they won’t accept this, they won’t accept that. Is that right? You see European nations who say, “We will not even accept one,” those nations that produced refugees during World War Two, such as Czech [Republic], such as Poland. The refugee situation is not just about the people in Syria or Afghanistan or Pakistan, but rather about our society, our humanity, our understanding of compassion.

The Rest chronicles the daily lives of refugees in Europe as they hang in limbo between the humanitarian aid system and intensifying nationalism.

Courtesy of Hot Docs

Do you see solutions? Watching the family toward the end of the film who are so unhappy stuck in a hostel in Germany that they return to Iraq, I was struck that the solutions lie in fixing places not displacing people.

It’s not really a regional problem, it is much larger than that. If you really want to talk about solutions – not just to the refugee problem but to today’s Canada-China dispute or the U.S.-China situation – we have to re-examine our total condition globally: politics, capitalism, socialism. We have to come up with solutions to dealing with the environment, humanity. What are the most meaningful, profound values we all have to protect – it doesn’t matter what religion or society. We have to come out with a conclusion; the small arguments will never really work.

Previously when asked about Canada’s disagreement with China over the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, you responded with a statement that was critical of the West’s economic involvement with China, but you didn’t mention Canada specifically. What advice would you give to Canada?

I function like a Chinese doctor. Feel the pulse. Canada is a brand-new society compared to others; in many ways it is quite innocent. It has its own perspective, it has new values, it is more open, more rational. It is defending the rule of law. Those are core values, and it doesn’t matter who you are dealing with, those values should be held as important. It gives Canada its own identity. Now, China, the U.S., there is some kind of warfare there; it put Canada in a difficult position, but still I think Canada did nothing wrong and should make the right judgment as to what they believe.

Earlier this year, you accused the producers of Berlin I Love You of cutting your contribution to their film for fear of offending China. How do we engage culturally with China when there are these kinds of misunderstandings?

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It is a very difficult task because China doesn’t want to change anything. It openly states it doesn’t recognize democracy, freedom of speech, individual rights, multiple parties. But also China provides the largest labour market and consumer market which makes every Western nation desire to be a business partner. China never has a free economy and never will under this government. A democratic society cannot even compete against a society like that. Nothing is independent. They can sacrifice anything to make their political agenda. So I think it is absolutely dangerous for Western society because it gives a very different model.

Sup with the devil …

It can be friendly and acceptable like any society, but it can be brutal and you have no way to discuss matters. The West has to be clearly aware of that. It’s not the challenge of China, it’s the challenge of the West, and I think they are not winning the game because they don’t understand what they are dealing with.

You have become a nemesis of the Chinese regime, a celebrity in the West. What impact does it have on your artistic practice, getting work done?

I don’t know who I am actually. In my life, I have been put in certain positions [where] I am trying to still maintain my own sensitivity, my own judgment, never give up my own opinion. Sometimes it doesn’t help me that much, but we have only one life.

The Rest screens at Hot Docs April 26, 27 and May 5. The filmmaker will speak about his work April 27 at 10:30 a.m. at the Isabel Bader Theatre (

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This interview has been edited and condensed.

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