Theater of Cruelty

From the front in the war on refugees

The Rest
Regissør: Ai Weiwei

THE REFUGEE CRISIS / Chinese artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei follows up his documentary Human Flow with a report from the war zones awaiting refugees in Europe. The Rest is about the millions who came to seek shelter but did not find it.


A woman wandering off without possessions, but instead with her cat in her arms. A man who asks why everyone doesn't care about his kids lying on the sea floor, why no one has bothered so much as saving their bodies, six months after the smuggler's boat sank. Why the smuggler was only sentenced to two months in prison for the murder of thirteen women and children. An Italian priest trying to heal his fellow man's "wounded dignity" after they appeared in his village while most of his neighbors are trying to get the refugees to flee again. Police officers burning a refugee camp on the border between France and Britain, while residents stand watching their few belongings disappear, wondering where to sleep tonight – are asking themselves because no one else intends to answer.


Chinese filmmaker Ai Weiwe's latest documentary The Rest is a front-page report of the war being waged against refugees in Europe and its border countries.

The Rest Instructor Ai Weiwei

It is about local residents who are upset that their coastal resort, where they moved to live the good life, is spoiled by the misfortune of others, angry that they can no longer eat fresh fish because the sea is polluted by human.

It is about an asylum system depleted of humanity, a system built on the logic that when someone has been forced to leave their home, they should have no influence whatsoever on where their new, temporary home could be. It is about the resources spent on enforcing borders, building walls and fences, bombing foreign lands, and the resources that are not spent sheltering the people who have made an impossible choice to remain under life-threatening conditions, or risking the life and lives of their loved ones to flee to the uncertain.

"Is this Europe? It looks like a third world country, "says a refugee about the conditions they are offered to them where they thought they could find a safe haven.

For the majority of the world's inhabitants, human rights are an abstraction at best, and Ai Weiwei shows this depressing fact in a quietly observant, carefully listening way. While his conceptual art is often commercial and his brand personified – not least because of the reception of him and his work – his documentary The Rest is humbly composed and gives voice to the people no one wants to hear.

Our humanity

Through gifted editing of footage and inverting moments, the director has created a strong plot and a strong accusation. The comfort of the minority is protected by the majority being deprived of the most basic necessities. Food, hygiene, shelter, safe routes. In a liberal world order that honors individuality and freedom of choice, refugees and migrants are treated as masses, hordes, as an unwanted, unwelcome, dangerously disruptive element whose bodies and lives are worthless.

Ai Weiwe's latest documentary is set to premiere in Copenhagen, the capital of a country that in recent years has managed to amaze even the increasingly numb western world with humiliating treatment of refugees.

The Rest is exemplarily humble and gives voice to the people no one wants to hear

"We offered you our humanity, and this is the thanks?" says a desperate refugee to the camera. Europe has indeed sold out of humanity – those who dare to cross borders and those who by all means try to keep them out have respectively been robbed and lost.

Ai Weiwei

From the jungles of Calais to the coasts of Italy and Greece, war is being waged against the people who fled it. A war so brutal that some even choose to go back to the place they left in desperation – then shudder at the terms they were greeted with, beginning to doubt whether the impossible choice they had made was wrong, well knowing that it may not be right to go back either. In their search for a future, many discover that they have none.

With The Rest gives Ai Weiwei his contribution to saving the individuality and humanity of those who are treated as subhumans; we see refugees in a muddy camp playing piano under a piece of plastic in the rain, we see the woman who decided that what she wanted to take with her the long way from Syria to Sweden was her cat.

Mat The Rest also help save the humanity of those who are so afraid of sharing their own comfort that they would rather be accomplices in the literal and symbolic death of their fellow human beings.

Ai Weiwei World Premiere: CPH DOX

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian.

You may also like