Ai Weiwei might be best known for his sculptures and installations, but with Human Flow he has created a masterpiece that truly captures the humanity at the heart of the global refugee crisis.
Many films try to represent big ideas, but few do it successfully. Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow is a fortunate exception to the rule, its abstract title strikingly brought to life by the Chinese dissident-artist’s journey across 23 countries affected by refugee flows. Few works of art bring home as vividly as this one the notion of humanity as a single entity needlessly divided by artificial borders, armed guards and barbed wire. That artificiality is comically illustrated in a scene shot on the Mexico-US frontier, in which an American patrol guard warns Weiwei about crossing a wooden peg in the sand officially marking out “the border”.
All visited in the space of a year by Weiwei and his crew of over 200, the sheer number of countries gives Human Flow its grandeur and emphasises the shared experience of asylum seekers – primarily uncertainty, trauma, deprivation and alienation – all over the world. Some of these places are familiar from the evening newsreels – Greece, Turkey and Jordan – while others – Kenya, Bangladesh and Mexico for example – receive far less attention. Yet all are accorded equal importance in a film that prefers to observe and explore, rather than race the viewer through a predetermined political narrative.
Human Flow is equally democratic in the individuals it bears witness to. Heads of international organisations, diplomats and Jordanian royalty are heard from, but so are the real protagonists in this story – the displaced men, women and children themselves. Experts and practitioners give some commentary on the events on screen, but unlike so many other political documentaries the use of this device is rare enough to remain impactful while empowering the images to speak for themselves. Indeed, Weiwei often considers it enough to simply film individual asylum seekers in silence; words being unnecessary when their weary faces, gazes and gestures speak such volumes.
Given Weiwei’s limited experience as a film director, the quality of the filmmaking underpinning Human Flow comes as a pleasant surprise. His experiments across a range of styles generally work, from intimate handheld shots following asylum seekers on their arduous journeys and rough and ready iPhone footage, to ultra-smooth drone shots of camps and ocean crossings and meditative, painterly compositions. All serve their purpose by enabling the viewer to exist on several planes of reality simultaneously; at one moment embedded within the raw daily struggle of an asylum speaker, the next detachedly contemplating the human condition from an almost omniscient perspective.
Quotes from poets and foundational political documents are used sparingly, but to great effect. One particularly powerful example is an extract from the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights – promising to uphold the principles of dignity, equality and justice – that flashes in front of images of asylum seekers languishing in horrific conditions on Greece’s northern border. Why not launch humanity’s troublemakers into space, suggests Syrian astronaut Mohamed Fares towards the end of the film. If only it were so easy.
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka