The Rest is Not History

Film still from The Rest (2019). Courtesy of the artist.

It takes a heart of stone to not be shaken by The Rest, Ai Weiwei’s second documentary about the ongoing refugee crisis. Premiered at the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival on 22 March 2019, this sobering cri-de-coeur received a standing ovation twice.

We are here entrusted with a humbling dialogue with individuals we call refugees. As their own words and visages, silences and tears strike home their ordeal, salient is the cruelty – and absurdity – of not the war they escaped, but the inhumanity thrown in their face.

‘We can’t eat fish now because of the dead bodies in the sea’, protests a resident in Dikili. Whilst some of her fellow creatures turn into corpses in the water, others live a second death reaching the shore. Previously dignified citizens are reduced, in differing ways, to indignity on European soil. 

Historically, Europe has been more an idea than a place. That idea looks now more and more like an illusion. As a host of cosmopolitan values, Europe post 1989 has increasingly closed in on itself. It now struggles to survive provincialism on all fronts. In The Rest, the only forthrightly welcoming figure is a priest in Cassibile. His disposition is not partaken by his neighbours.

Civic society is not a given. We recall that interwar efforts to overcome enmity with love failed. Postwar attempts to right the wrong have since the end of the Cold War crumbled. Merkel’s 2015 open-door policy matter-of-factly honoured the 1949 Geneva Conventions, when invisible walls new and old had risen and re-risen since the fall of the Berlin wall.

In his 1929 Civilisation and Its Discontents Freud remarked: ‘It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness.’ In retrospect, it appears as though ours is a doomed human condition to which political solutions must be summoned, and for which psychological remedies must be sought.

It is in this sense that filmmaking is a civic act. The Rest is at once a documentation and a negation of aggressiveness and of its normalisation. Defenseless people on the receiving end of aggression look us in the eye. Standing naked is at once truth and its inconvenience.

It is possible to ignore, deny, falsify, when we do not know what exactly is happening. The Rest sheds that possibility – a possibility made possible, paradoxically, by media coverage fatigued and fatiguing; and reinstates the plainness of fact: a refugee does not threaten; he or she is threatened. It remains our choice to understand, and to act. 

Whilst structural solutions need be found, compassion must be restored. Marking The Rest is at once pathos and its restraint. The lucid narration and sensitive editing, according each moment its place, each voice its space, is the work of Wang Fen who, together with Ai Weiwei and their young son Ai Lao, themselves living in exile, came face-to-face in 2015 with the dying and the dead in Lesbos. 

The gravity of that experience turned into 900 hours of footage shot by a transnational team in 150 locations, out of which emerged Human Flow in 2017, mapping the extent of the humanitarian shipwreck. The rest of the footage came down, in 2019, to 80 minutes of uncluttered, unvarnished, uncompromising questioning of the still unaddressed, still unresolved. The Rest is more puissant than Human Flow, because more humble.

Even more than his audacity, it is Ai Weiwei’s consistency, his sustained engagement with human plights in all places and on all scales, that compels our respect. Were he to be a critic of injustices in China but shutting his eyes to injustices elsewhere, or vice versa, his critique would have been a betrayal at best. 

Born in the year when his father, along with half a million of China’s intelligentsia, was purged, Ai Weiwei knew from birth the predicament of displacement. Ai père’s generation of artists and writers passionately believed in the ideals of freedom and democracy associated with Europe. Many, like Ai Qing himself, had studied in interwar France, home to the 1789 Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen. Spiritual children of an old China that existed no more, and of an old Europe, a construct which to them was real, till death they loved China, they loved Europe. 

That love, philia, is rarely reciprocated. Power’s natural friend is phobia. Of love and fear is each of us capable. The Rest affirms our almost-instinct, almost-forgotten: if we cannot live dignifiedly, do not act honourably, we are dead already. 

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