Niels Pagh about Ai WeiWei & Human Flow

Documentary director Fredrik Gertten (the two Bananas films, Bikes vs. Cars, Zlatan) left his editing room in Malmø last night to go and see Ai WeiWei’s ”Human Flow” at a preview screening – the film premieres tomorrow theatrically in Sweden. Fredrik was so kind after the screening to take a photo of the editor of the film, Niels Pagh Andersen, together with me, who talked with Niels.

We had more than an hour to have Niels give background to why he was working with the world famous artist, how that work was organised, the aesthetic choices, the message that the Chinese artist wanted to send and much more.

Let me mention a couple of the things that came up:

When Niels accepted the job as the chief editor of the film, there was 1000 hours of material so he had to put on the role of being the employer to hire people, to set up an editing process with 4 junior chosen editors, with two senior editors and himself on top of the cake. To get the process organised. With not much help up front from Ai WeiWei, who had had film crews on many locations telling them to do master shots and not close up shots. That was the aesthetic choice done and that stressed the global perspective of the film: No individual characters to follow. But many countries, many situations, camp after camp for refugees, Iraq, Italy, Greece, Tyrkey, Germany, France etc.

Ai WeiWei had from the very beginning put total trust in the Danish editor, who worked 60 hours per week (one day off per week) in 9 months! And they had together solved the issue: how to convey information to the audience. Niels told that they had tried with Ai WeiWei’s voice and a female voice, but they dropped it and ended up with text quotes from news media and from poets, dead or alive. As the film also includes interviews, it is actually stylistically quite a messy one, but the ”flow”, the movements of the people gives it harmony and – we asked – there was noone, who thought the film was too long (2 hours 20 minutes).

Niels said that they wanted to make a film about hope. Not another refugee misery film. Respect for the human being, for human dignity, let’s show them as human beings and not as numbers, telling that we know what must be done, but also a criticism of the position of the EU, the hypocrisy – ”we” give loads of money to Turkey and then please keep them away from us!

We don’t want you to pity them, Niels said, I understood what he said but I have to say that I pitied them for 2 hours and 20 minutes looking at one (fantastic drone images) refugee camp after the other, and an average of 26 years for the refugees. Twentysixyears! On the other hand there are so many scenes with energy like the one from the beach in Gaza with the young girls, who with big smiles explain how it is to live a prison-like life.

It took almost 3 months to get the music (Danish composer Karsten Fundal) in place after castings. Ai WeiWei was often asking for less sound level and there is a fantastic image towards the end where the sound it totally taken away with a man walking near fire in Mosul, if I got it right.

Niels and I sat down for the more than one hour of the conversation we had. It was the moderator’s decision that we should sit down even if I know that Niels prefers to stand. Or rather, as I have seen him on numeorus occasions, move around with a microphone in hand. What would that mean for the moderator, I asked him? Would be great exercise for you!!!

PS. Fredrik Gertten expressed his worry for the audience numbers in Malmø as Nordisk Film, the distributor, had chosen to show the film in its own cinemas, where an art house audience does not come. I said that the same was the case in Copenhagen. Stupid decisions!

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Tue Steen Müller
Tue Steen Müller

Müller, Tue Steen
Documentary Consultant and Critic, DENMARK

Worked with documentary films for more than 20 years at the Danish Film Board, as press officer, festival representative and film consultant/commissioner. Co-founder of Balticum Film and TV Festival, Filmkontakt Nord, Documentary of the EU and EDN (European Documentary Network).
Awards: 2004 the Danish Roos Prize for his contribution to the Danish and European documentary culture. 2006 an award for promoting Portuguese documentaries. 2014 he received the EDN Award “for an outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture”. 2016 The Cross of the Knight of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. 2019 a Big Stamp at the 15th edition of ZagrebDox. 2021 receipt of the highest state decoration, Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for the significant contribution to the development and promotion of Latvian documentary cinema outside Latvia. In 2022 he received an honorary award at DocsBarcelona’s 25th edition having served as organizer and programmer since the start of the festival.
From 1996 until 2005 he was the first director of EDN (European Documentary Network). From 2006 a freelance consultant and teacher in workshops like Ex Oriente, DocsBarcelona, Archidoc, Documentary Campus, Storydoc, Baltic Sea Forum, Black Sea DocStories, Caucadoc, CinéDOC Tbilisi, Docudays Kiev, Dealing With the Past Sarajevo FF as well as programme consultant for the festivals Magnificent7 in Belgrade, DOCSBarcelona, Verzio Budapest, Message2Man in St. Petersburg and DOKLeipzig. Teaches at the Zelig Documentary School in Bolzano Italy.

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