A compassionate and artful exploration of the current global refugee crisis, Human Flow takes viewers into the camps, boats and footpaths comprising the migrant experience.
A compassionate and artful exploration of the current global refugee crisis, Human Flow takes viewers into the camps, boats and footpaths comprising the migrant experience. The charismatic and indefatigable Chinese exile and artist Ai Weiwei directed the documentary, and his mark is quite apparent. His fingerprints are positive: His tirelessness and worldwide humanitarian credibility are enormous assets; but also negative: The film is shot and edited with the lack of focus one might expect from an amateur director. Overall, the film is a testament to its creator’s role as an unofficial global human rights ambassador.
Who better to chronicle the unprecedented flow of refugees, migrants, exiles and stateless victims of violence and globalization than Weiwei? He knows better than most the unbearable pain of leaving one’s home forever, of fleeing in the darkest night for safe harbor and of the siren song of a better life somewhere else. Human Flow demonstrates his epistemological privilege; no Westerner comfortably bearing a US or EU passport could bring the level of humane engagement to the problem that Weiwei does here. He populates so many of the scenes: Hugging refugees, crying with them, taking selfies with them or merely witnessing their plight with a camera in his hand or on his shoulder.
The film is a visual archive of the current humanitarian crisis happening in and around the Mediterranean. It takes the viewer to the beaches of the Greek Isles where rubber dinghies overloaded with people crash land onto “Europe.” It journeys from the Isles to the mainland on massive passenger ferries. It shows the desperate crossing, by foot, of the various borders of the Balkans states: Greece to Macedonia to Serbia to Hungary to the promised land of Germany and Sweden. But listing the countries of this massive trek is too abstract; Human Flow follows them with its camera, through muddy streams into tent cities full of hungry, exhausted people and all the way to the aggressively militarized border of Hungary. Ai Weiwei gets dirt under his nails for his shots, and, in doing so, humanizes the refugees in a way that previous journalists and documentarians have failed to do.
Venturing away from Europe, the film also goes to Iraq, Jordan and Turkey, countries responsible for receiving most of the refugees fleeing Syria. The film shows the massive camps—which more closely resemble cities—where these people are living, waiting for an international humanitarian response that seems increasingly unlikely to come. Most breathtakingly, Human Flow travels to Gaza, to the most obdurate and entrenched refugee situation in the world. Here, Ai Weiwei finds the quite apt metaphor of a tiger which was trapped in Gaza after escaping captivity in Egypt. Unlike the Gazans, who reveal that they yearn to travel the world (though they will likely never leave the Gaza Strip), the tiger is rescued from Gaza through an international humanitarian effort. For a tiger, border walls suddenly disappear; for people, however, such walls proliferate in both number and scale.
Ai Weiwei makes some missteps in the editing of the film, moving time and place around so often it leads to occasional incoherence. Perhaps the worst instance is a five-minute segment on the Rohingya of Burma; this ethnic minority brutalized by its government is given a few scenes and never covered again. In other instances, the narrative strand is obliterated by the film’s perspective bouncing from and around Europe and the Middle East a little too cavalierly. A bit more focus would have improved the film immensely, and probably trimmed 10 or more minutes from the robust runtime.
Despite flourishes such as the Gazan tiger, most of the film’s power lies in quiet, subtle, all-too-human moments. It is a film of pathos that refuses to posit a clearly stated thesis, choosing instead to humanize the refugees and show the inhumanity of laws, border fences and xenophobia. The title says it all: People, like water, will flow and anything that blocks the path will ultimately get smashed by the crush of the flowing substance. Human Flow does not equivocate on its central point: This is the crisis of our time and we must do something about it. The flow of humans will continue, regardless of European/Western action or inaction, and the only possible response is to open our arms and accept our fellow humans with love and compassion. Or get washed away in the cascading tide of humanity.