Speech by Foreign Minister Gabriel at the German premiere of “Human Flow”, a film by Ai Weiwei

08.11.2017 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Ai Weiwei,

Ladies and gentlemen,

We are here this evening to watch an impressive film by an extraordinary person. It is a very special work of art on a topic of great concern to our world just now: global migration. The film speaks to the hearts of those who feel themselves moved by the fate of others.

Art can unleash enormous energy. Who knows that better than Ai Weiwei? Be it film, literature or theatre – art always takes a different perspective from the one we are used to in our day-to-day lives. And precisely because art enables us to take a different view of the world, it also helps us to understand the world better. Or perhaps art tries to trip us up, making us less certain about how we have viewed the world to date. This is particularly true of the film we are watching tonight.

It is an incontrovertible historical fact that humanity is made up of migrants, although most migration is still internal migration. We are talking about well over sixty million people currently on the move, having left their homes. We feel moved by this migration, but also sometimes a little fearful of all these people arriving in our societies. And yet the vast majority of those forced to leave their homes, their region, are moving around in their own country or fleeing to neighbouring countries equally under threat and often just as poor as those they have left behind. Certainly there are far more people migrating between poor countries than there are people leaving their home country for far-flung regions.

But leaving your home and finding a new home is part of our modern age, and not just since the most recent flows of refugees and migrants reaching our shores. This movement of people that we now call migration has always existed. However, natural disasters, wars and social and government repression are today driving far more people than ever before to leave their homes and set out in search of a new one. These people are hoping for a better quality of life in a different place. A place they do not know.

For many people from all across the world, Germany has – in an almost wondrous way – become a place of longing and a land of hope. When one imagines what people were thinking and saying about our country just a few decades ago, when one considers what ravages and devastation, murder and genocide this country once unleashed, then that is altogether an astonishing story and an amazing stroke of fortune, in part earned but in part also a gift.

I believe we should remind ourselves occasionally that Germany today is to many people in the world what the United States of America was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In saying that, I am not trying to gloss over the problems of migration in our country, but I do think, more than anything, that it is a tremendous turn of history that this country is no longer one which triggers fear in other countries, but rather hope and longing.

Nonetheless – and here we come to the predicament of our age – we also need to recognise that Germany’s new popularity and attractiveness is worrying a section of our own population. And not just those who are racists and right-wing radicals. Of course they are not the majority, thank goodness, but there is a larger, growing section of our society which longs to be back in a supposedly perfect, understandable and apparently ordered world.

There is no way back, and the world was never so perfect anyway. Without doubt, there can only be a way forwards. But we do have to be clear about what we are talking about here: global migration is a real challenge for humankind. Managing it is the central task of our age. I deliberately said it was a challenge for humankind, because in the coming decades this task will demand our energies and abilities all around the world.

And what is needed to meet this challenge is, first and foremost, a compass of human kindness. The film we are about to see provides exactly that. It shines with humanity and empathy – what Willy Brandt once called “compassion” – in other words, with the ability to see the life of others from their perspective, at least once.

Here in Germany we are always concerned with twofold integration. It is a matter of integrating new arrivals in our country, of giving them opportunities and prospects, of giving them a home. But it is also a matter of holding together in society those who are already here and who cannot blithely be told all their fears are groundless. Instead, we need to talk with them, about which fears are justified, which are not, and how we should deal with these fears and concerns. No-one in our country can be allowed to have the impression – and this is something I have heard over and over again in recent months – that “You’re doing everything for the newcomers and nothing for us”. That is not true at all. This country is strong enough and capable enough to provide both: a fair say and stake in society for all who are already here, and new opportunities for all those arriving in Germany and for all those who can and should find a new home in our country.

I believe the real priority must be to tackle this twofold job of integration, and not to shy away either from the task itself or from uncomfortable issues. We must not allow the film to make us forget the related difficulties within our society. On the contrary: those who are guided by humanity, solidarity and a desire to help are called upon to care for those at risk of losing sight of compassion and humanity.

In this context, it is absolutely crucial that all sections of society, irrespective of their geographical or social origins, have access to culture and education. And so making this a focus of our cultural policy is a wise course, certainly within the scope of a cultural policy taken in the broader sense, where it is a matter of ensuring cohesion in our society.

In my opinion, cultural policy also depends on culture regarding itself as a political entity, acting in the public interest or taking it to task.

I agree with the late Martin Roth when he says that art always has to be political too. Art needs to intervene, contradict, take a stance or, as I would put it, try to trip us up, so that we are not oversure of what we have always thought, said or done.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We are about to see an extraordinary film. It is a documentary about the biggest movement of our time: it is about refugees, the uprooted, the disenfranchised, the displaced. It is about the reasons why they have been displaced or had to leave their homes and about what they have experienced and suffered along the way.

We are going to be watching a film that is well placed to change the debate in society about refugees and migration – through the sheer power of its images, and through the profoundly humane viewpoint it espouses.

Ai Weiwei is reported to have said that if the film makes even just one person in the audience change his or her opinion or attitudes, then it will have been worthwhile. That is an impressive comment. I hope that more than one person is affected in the truest sense by the film.

“Human Flow” not only shows us vivid images, but also gives us an insight into the experiences of refugees and migrants, without resorting to false sentimentality.

The film shows that there are no longer any insiders and outsiders in our modern society, no us and them, no either or. There are only people in search of a life free of war, hunger and persecution. And even those who are often disparagingly referred to as “economic refugees” are people who believe their children have no chance in their country and who want to seize the opportunity to find a better future for their children. Who could possibly want to deny them that?

Ai Weiwei, thank you very much for this vivid film, an utterly unique work of art. I wish us all an evening of intense emotion. And I hope that the film affects as many people as possible, leading them, as Ai Weiwei said, to change their attitude to the subject a little.

Thank you!

Related content


Top of page