Rohingya is a continuation of Ai Weiwei’s previous films Human Flow (2017) and The Rest (2019) which spotlight the plight of refugees. The feature-length documentary focuses on Rohingya refugees who were forced out of Myanmar in August 2017. The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority from Myanmar’s Rakhine State who have suffered several decades of persecution by the Burmese government. Following widespread ethnic cleansing by the Burmese army, they fled to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, which have become the world’s largest refugee camp of our time and accommodate nearly 900,000 refugees now. Filmed over several months in Cox’s Bazar, Rohingya records the community’s everyday life, social rituals, the camp’s unique landscapes, and the light of humanity amid one of the greatest displacements of our time.
Ana Cristina Mendes: Especially regarding your transnational documentaries on the refugee ‘crisis,’ the issue of aesthetics – more precisely, the aestheticization of reality – seems to be a recurrent one in interviews. In your earlier documentaries, we sensed that, for you, a way to fight fascism and authoritarianism was through rejecting the appropriation of aesthetics by unceasingly bear- ing witness to reality and engaging in unrelenting documentation. You were not deliberate regarding matters of aesthetic judgment – the recording was the artistic and political intervention in the public sphere. While your earlier films were rough and raw, your more recent films have stunning, beautiful images, in the sense of being more aesthetically pleasing. Could you expand on how – and if – ‘beautifying’ remains a loaded word for you today? Do you find yourself now pursuing any kind of visual effect in these transnational projects?
Ai Weiwei: Roughness or un-roughness is, for me, the same when making a film. In the early films, we had to do them for the next day to put them online. We wanted people to see the images, so we only needed a sketch. Now we have time to show the films in theatres or film festivals. We must respect people’s watching habits. Westerners eat at a table, using plates and knives and forks. A more expensive restaurant only uses larger plates. This does not mean that the food is better, but people appreciate that. So, it depends if you want to eat your grandma’s food, which is many times better, or you want to go to a luxurious restaurant. It is a matter of experiencing a situation differently. A so-called good image means nothing to me. Every part of nature, every leaf, every piece of grass, is much more beautiful than visual effects.
Ana Cristina Mendes in conversation with Ai Weiwei1
- 1. Ana Cristina Mendes, “The world as a readymade: a conversation with Ai Weiwei,” Transnational Screens, 17 April 2022.