Ai Weiwei on the death of Diane Weyermann: ‘Like a bridge of hope washed away in the storm’

·4 min read

Diane has left. When someone close passes away, we feel that a part of ourselves left together with them. A part of our understanding of the world, a link in our interpersonal network, our previous value judgment and actions in the past have all been misplaced because of the passing of a close friend.

This sense of misplacement is sometimes very strong and clear, almost like the lack of a lit candle on the shore of a river or a pile of extinguished charcoal in cold weather. We cannot envisage it before people disappear from our life. When they do disappear, we suddenly become aware of the fact that the light and warmth, which vanished with their passing, are lost for ever. They are irreplaceable and will never return. No matter what happens in the future, whatever is lost is lost for ever.

Diane Weyermann at Sundance 2004.
Diane Weyermann at Sundance 2004. Photograph: Rebecca Sapp/Sundance Institute

I met Diane when I was working on Human Flow, my documentary about the global refugee crisis. Initially, I did not anticipate the involvement of people outside my team in its production. All I wanted to do was to truthfully document my feelings, bring them to light and leave a record of history. It surprised me a lot when Diane at Participant (the Los Angeles-based production dedicated to entertainment intended to spur social change) showed interest when I was about to start making it. She soon came on board, along with Andy Cohen, as executive producers of the film.

My films, since Human Flow, have not been accepted by any major film festivals. They have all kowtowed to China

At that time, I fully dedicated myself to the issues surrounding the crisis. I was absorbing knowledge like a student and very eager to understand the history of human migration, and how society treated the least fortunate among us who extended their arms to send distress signals. All this is unfamiliar and familiar to me at the same time. I come from China. My childhood experience made me realise that a lot of people need help, and this help has to be selfless although it is very likely futile. Without help from others, the displaced people would be in despair and with no way out.

Throughout the production and distribution of Human Flow, I had a lot of contact with Diane. Sometimes I asked myself why Diane, such an important film producer and longtime pillar of documentary-making in the US, firmly believed in my film’s relatively distant subject matter and selflessly supported it?

Diane loved documentaries and all things related: film-makers, cinematography, storytelling. She advised me to encapsulate more storytelling and fewer opinion statements in my film, but I was very stubborn. In my opinion, arguments are the most important part of my documentaries. Although I did not accept her well-intentioned suggestion, I sent all my films after Human Flow to Diane for a preview. She expressed strong support for my works and introduced me to film festivals and distributors. Yet all my films since Human Flow have not been accepted by any major film festivals. They have all kowtowed to China and submitted themselves to its dominance in the cultural sector. They are willing to give everything for a slice of the cake in the Chinese market. It is very sad for the film world. Fortunately, nowadays we have practically said goodbye to the era of cinema and entered a more chaotic and disorderly period of visual clutter.

Diane was one of the most selfless and generous people I have ever met. Both she and Andy Cohen are great of mind and heart, with a very high degree of magnanimity that is rarely seen. They are always ready to embrace the unknown, and even danger, as they are so passionate about life and relentlessly hold on to their ideals. Diane’s readiness to contribute to a cause she believes in is truly an inspiration to me, and her passing a huge loss to like-minded people; like a bridge of hope and imagination washed away in the storm.

Ai Weiwei making of documentary, Human Flow (2017) about mass migration. Diane Weyermann was one of the executive producers.
Ai Weiwei making of documentary, Human Flow (2017) about mass migration. Diane Weyermann was one of the executive producers. Composite: Getty

We live on Earth in a cold universe where we rely on human nature to survive and develop ourselves; human nature is composed of countless individuals’ fervour and imagination. Without independent thinking, superior wisdom, decision-making capacity and an action-driven approach, human society will not be able to put ideas and imagination into practice, and we will become stiff, icy, lustreless and unblessed.

Diane’s passing made me feel that every living individual should self-actualise to the maximum and insist on pursuing ideals with free thinking, free expression and proactivity. It is the only way for us to feel that we, as individuals, are not alone. Every effort is embedded with meanings. Passivity is a poison in human nature. The best antidote is dedication of oneself to ideals and other people.

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