Human Flow: Ai Weiwei’s poignant investigation into the refugee crisis

13th December 2017

Rough estimates suggest that there are currently over 65 million individuals who are forcibly displaced throughout the world. People fleeing their homes and countries due to war, persecution or starvation in search of a safer and more stable life. Human Flow is a film that focuses in on this global crisis, documenting it through the eyes of one of the world’s most prominent artists, Ai Weiwei who has successfully produced a visually stunning, touching and urgent film that observes this mass exodus never judgingly and above all respectfully.

Ai Weiwei’s work is famous for making strong aesthetic statements that resonate with timely phenomena across today’s geopolitical world. His work and political activism is often considered controversial and thought provoking, so much so that the Chinese authorities banned him from leaving China over a four-year period because of fear of spreading anti-Chinese propaganda; he lives and works in Berlin. He uses numerous mediums for his artistic expression from architecture to installations, social media to documentaries, with the intention of getting audiences to examine society and its values. For Human Flow, Ai Weiwei directs and produces along with a crew of 200, filming in over 23 countries, over a course of a year.

Human Flow, is perhaps an extension to his visual expression, making his own statement on the current immigration crisis. His investigation takes him to current refugee hotspots such as Greece, Italy, Turkey, Bangladesh but also to older still continuing displacement such as refugee camps in Israel, Lebanon, Pakistan but also areas like the US-Mexico border, to name a few. It’s a difficult pill to swallow as one watches people fighting the elements for survival, enduring severe weather and terrains, crossing over mountains, across deserts for weeks on end, spending all their life savings to jump into a flimsy rubber raft, daring to defy the ocean’s perils, chasing an unwritten future; the promise of stability in an inviting or more often an uninviting country could provide.

As the crew travels around the globe, various locations are introduced by stark statistics or insightful quotes across the screen. Scenes are stunning, breath-taking at points, the beauty and ruthlessness of nature is always at the forefront. It all looks epic and grand with a vast abundance of sky and space. There is continuous use of wide angles, sweeping in or sweeping down, possibly filming with drones. We see washed out tents outside the Macedonian borders, make-shift mud huts in Kenya, the tall parting cemented walls of Gaza, pitch black seas of the Mediterranean with a dim light from an overflowing blow-up raft emerging. Ai Weiwei hits you repeatedly from one extreme situation to the next.
There is a saviour complex and self-promotion which generally come with such filmic efforts which Human Flow doesn’t completely shake off. Even though Ai Weiwei seems to be a man of few words you, appearing humble and approachable, his presence is seen and felt throughout the film. One scene in particular, on the US/ Mexico border, he puts himself forward as a guinea pig and crosses the border into the US, within seconds he is greeted and reprimanded, ever so lightly, by border patrol. One wonders if it weren’t the presence of a professional camera crew or a world-renowned artist; whether their reception to a trespasser would be as tame.
In fairness, this maybe a side effect to Ai Weiwei fame and perhaps how he is conceived in real-life or on film is not something he has control of. He genuinely comes off as rather sweet and endearing but also self-aware, treating everyone he comes across with respect; it’s never with pity or victimization or judgement. This is further reflected in the observational style of the film, there is no answers to questions just a matter of fact-ness about it all, as it fluctuates from personal stories to a bustling refugee camp to talking heads of a border patrol guard, a politician or an NGO.

Despite any cynicism, the topic is so serious and crucially important that any effort, especially one as thorough and slick as Human Flow, that highlights this crisis should be embraced and further commended. The flow of people is not something new, it has and will always exist in human history; a search for a better, safer place to live. What Human Flow does correctly point out is that: no matter where you are in the world and how far removed you think you are, you are somehow contributing to this crisis.

Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_
More on Ai Weiwei here.

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