Movie Review: Human Flow

Artist Ai Weiwei makes an artistic exploration of the refugee crisis

Human Flow
Directed by Ai Weiwei
With Ai Weiwei, various refugees and experts

Chinese-born artist Ai Weiwei, now based in Berlin, recently has been focusing on the global refugee crisis. Aside from physical art objects, some of which were in Prague last year at the National Gallery at Veletržní palác, he has made a 140-minute documentary called Human Flow.

The film tries to grasp the vast scope of the refugee issue, not only with people from Syria and other countries in the Middle East attempting to reach Europe, but across Africa and Asia and at the US–Mexico border.

The main language of the film is English, with texts from headlines and other sources appearing on the screen to show some of the issues. Most of the experts from humanitarian groups and governments speak English on screen as well. Some of the refugees interviewed, speak a mix of languages such as Kurdish, Spanish, Turkish and Rohingya, and for the Czech cinema, these are subtitled in Czech.

People who can't read the subtitles will lose a bit of the more personal perspective, but still should be able to get the broad concepts.

Ai Weiwei traveled all across the globe to make the film. It is not a collection of talking heads. Instead, he has his camera crew right on the beaches of Greece as refugees arrive and at the fences that block their progress.

He also tries to be a postmodern artist. He can be seen taking video with his phone of the Steadicam crew that is filming the refugees — making a film about him making a film about the film you are watching.

The film does change rapidly from masterfully composed, artistic shots to phone footage, and from action to interviews.

Throughout the film, Ai Weiwei remains a visual artist, creating moments of beauty among the chaos.

Drones are used, making images from high up where people seem like frantic dots and coming down to the level of pavement to catch line patterns on the ground.

Ai Weiwei breaks out of being an observer. In one scene he trades passports with a man. telling the refugee he can now go to Berlin to be an artist, while Ai Weiwei will live in a tent at the camp.

He has other moments of interaction with his subjects, listening to their dreams of a better life, but the scope of the problem is beyond something one person can handle.

The gap between what the refugees expected to find in a land that in their minds represents freedom and what they actually encounter is enormous.

The main focus of the film is the message that people are being forced out of their homes across the world for a variety of reasons including ethnic hatred, warfare and economics. And while they have to leave, there is often no place to go. Most people would like to simply return home, but home no longer exists.

The destination for those that make it usually winds up being a vast city of tents, where people's lives are stalled for months and years. Children, especially in these circumstances, lack access to education.

To people who have been following the issue, some of the film will be old news. Filming took place largely in 2016 and early 2017. The closing of borders in Europe, in many cases with barbed wire fences, is one of the main focuses. People wait at border crossings in Greece and former Yugoslavia with no way forward or back.

He also goes to Calais, a port in the north of France, as police shut down the tent camp there, known as the Jungle, and displace the occupants. People trying to hide in trucks going across the French border can be seen being caught.

Camps in Turkey and Jordan are also seen, with political figures trying to put the problem in perspective. The societies there are trying to help, but the number of people in need is in the millions.

The film is a bit less successful when it tries to cover the issues on the US–Mexico border and in Burma, as these themes seem included as an afterthought compared to the more extensive coverage of the issue in the Europe–Middle East–Africa (EMEA) region.

But Human Flow is a unique project, a combination art film and documentary that tries to but the global crisis into a personal perspective, through the vision of one of the world's major artistic figures. 

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