Film Review: Human Flow

Ai Weiwei’s epic study of the ever-worsening refugee crisis was shot in 23 countries over the course of a year or so, and while it differs from many docos this is nevertheless amongst the most powerfully moving and devastating chronicles of real life you’ll see in 2018.

The artist Weiwei (who has personal experience with dispossession as his family was exiled during China’s Cultural Revolution) serves as director, producer and a cinematographer here. While he appears on camera and is heard asking questions and sometimes just chatting, he doesn’t overwhelm the film (like Michael Moore or Louis Theroux).

He also mercifully doesn’t offer voice-over narration: there’s no, “I was deeply angered after my visit to Turkey”, or, “How can this be allowed in this day and age?”, as the film doesn’t need it, and he’d be making this all about himself. And it isn’t about him: it’s about the 65,000,000+ refugees in the world today.

Journeying from country to country, Weiwei’s first port of call is Iraq, where subtitles inform us that 277,000 refugees reside here and at least four million have been displaced from their homes (and they’re the lucky ones because 268,000 at least have been killed since the US “intervened” in 2003). Definitions of what a refugee is (according to the 1951 UN convention) appear onscreen, everyday life is quietly studied as Iraqi families attempt to live day by day, and there’s a short but affecting and painterly montage of ordinary people standing in front of the camera, all of whom remain still except for one restless little boy. Weiwei isn’t afraid to show how children are a major part of this crisis, especially as so many run up to him and his crew and pull faces into the lens.

We then shift to Greece, as a raft full of refugees arrive in Lesbos, and there’s a quick segue to Bangladesh, where a Rohingyas community leader can’t stop sobbing as he talks about being violently forced from his home. This is also the only time the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ is used in an onscreen quote, and it’s fairly horrifying.

The closest we get to contrivance happens with the inclusion of excerpts from poets and scriptures, and that’s a good thing as we’re then onto a mass of refugees on the Greek-Macedonian border who can barely remember how long they’ve been walking. When one learns that the borders are closing his look of complete dismay is shocking, and Weiwei goes in for a long tracking shot where the camera soars over the group and they look up at it, blank and exhausted.

Weiwei certainly isn’t finished though, and we move on to Southern Italy, Athens and Eastern Turkey, where an unnamed farmer with nothing says, “What’s lost does not matter, but there must be peace”, and he’s immediately contradicted by images of riots, tear gas, the wounded and the weeping. In Lebanon it’s stated that children without anything to live for are in danger of radicalisation, and then we’re onto Palestine, where soldiers rave into loudhailers about God being with them and the question of how to deal with this endless conflict is left hanging.

As if stuck for an ending (or simply depressed at all he’s seen), Weiwei goes out pretty much looking for trouble on the American-Mexican border and he rapidly finds it, and in his home city of Berlin there’s some optimism as an aid worker talks about how important it is to make refugees feel like human beings and that people actually care for them. A novel idea indeed.

Mostly removing the unnamed (and sometimes unseen) refugees themselves from questions of politics, culture, religion and even language, the director instead just presents them as people.While there are obvious but brief attempts to overly humanise them (a small moment where some coo over a cute cat, for example), they aren’t really necessary as we can plainly see and understand that they’re human. Just like you.

Rated M. Human Flow is in cinemas now.

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