REFUGEES: Chinese artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei follows up his documentary Human Flow with a reportage from the warzones that await refugees in Europe. The Rest is about the millions who came for shelter but found none.

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen is a historian and freelance journalist. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: March 23, 2019

The Rest

Ai Weiwei

China, Germany, 2019

A woman carrying no belongings but instead her cat, cuddled up in her arms. A man asking why no one cares that his children are under water, why no one has bothered to recover their bodies, six months after the smuggler’s boat sank. Why the smuggler’s sentence was only two months for the murder of thirteen women and children. An Italian priest seeking to provide first aid to the «broken dignity» of the fellow humans that appeared in his town, while most of his neighbours are trying to make these refugees flee again. A police force burning down a refugee camp while the inhabitants watch their few belongings disappear, asking themselves where they will sleep tonight – asking themselves because no one else is going to provide them with any answers.

Resources spent, resources denied

Chinese filmmaker Ai Weiwei’s new documentary The Rest is a reportage from the frontline of the war that is being waged against refugees in Europe and its borderlands.

The Rest is a reportage from the frontline of the war that is being waged against refugees in Europe and its borderlands

It is about local inhabitants outraged that their coastal resort, where they came to live the good life, is being spoiled by someone else’s misery, outraged that they can no longer eat the fish fresh from the sea because of the contamination of bodies in the ocean.

It is about an asylum system devoid of humanity, a system built on the logic that when someone has been forced to leave their home they certainly should have no say whatsoever as to where their new, temporary, home might be. It is about the resources spent on border enforcement, wall constructions, bombings of foreign countries, and the lack of resources spent on sheltering those who are faced with the impossible choice of staying under lethal conditions or risking their lives and the lives of their children to flee into the unknown.

«Is this Europe? It looks like a third world country,» a refugee comments about the conditions they are offered in the place they thought would be safe for them.

For the majority of the world inhabitants, human rights are an abstraction at best, and Ai Weiwei shows this depressing fact in a quietly observing, carefully listening way. While his conceptual art is often commercial and his brand person-centred – though not least due to the reception of him and his work – his documentary The Rest is, admirably, modestly composed, giving voice to those people to whom nobody wants to listen.

A step towards salvaging humanity

Through a neatly edited ensemble of footage and interview moments, the documentary carries a strong plot, and a strong accusation. To protect the comfort of the few, the many are deprived the most basic amenities. Food, water, hygiene, shelter, safe passage. Under a liberal world-order that boasts the celebration of individuality and choice, refugees and migrants are treated as masses, hordes, as an unwanted, unwelcomed, dangerous disturbance, whose bodies and lives count for nothing.

In search of a future many discover that they have none

Ai Weiwei’s latest documentary will be premiering in Copenhagen, the capital of a country that in the last years has managed to baffle an increasingly numb Western world with its demeaning treatment of refugees. «We offered you our humanity, and this is how you reward us?» a refugee says in despair to the camera. Indeed, Europe is sacrificing the humanity of both those who dare to cross borders and those who use any means to keep them out.

From the Calais Jungle to the coasts of Italy and Greece, war is waged on the people who fled it. A war so savage that some even opt to return to the place they had left in desperation, so shaken by the conditions they were met with that they start doubting if the impossible choice they made was wrong, while knowing that returning cannot be right either. Thus, in search of a future many discover that they have none.

Weiwei has made an important contribution towards salvaging the individuality and humanity of those who are treated as subhuman

With The Rest, Ai Weiwei has made an important contribution towards salvaging the individuality and humanity of those who are treated as subhuman; we see refugees playing a piano under a plastic cover in the rain, we see the woman who decided that what she would bring on the long road from Syria to Sweden was her cat.

May The Rest also contribute to salvaging the humanity of the people who are so scared of sharing their own comfort that they would rather be complicit in the literal and symbolic deaths of their fellow beings.


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Modern Times Review