Ai Weiwei’s absorbing ‘Human Flow’ delivers visually arresting images and provocative meditations on the global refugee crisis
By Bliss Bowen
Early in director Ai Weiwei’s visually arresting film “Human Flow,” the renowned Chinese artist and dissident trains his camera on a succession of refugees at a camp. Rather than the usual quick establishing shots, these are lingering presentations; subjects’ eyes dart toward the edge of the frame, their lips tighten and brows wrinkle self-consciously as they stand, motionless.
The silence and stillness are discomfiting — and that’s the point. The viewer gradually notices the folds of a balding older man’s sari, a hajib-wearing mother’s nervous politeness as her wide-eyed young son grips her hand, the sound of wind tugging at large tent flaps behind them. We are compelled to see them for what they are: individual human beings.
Ai grounds his filmic study of human values — or the value of humans, if you prefer — with an abundance of striking natural imagery. “Human Flow” opens with a shot of a white gull winging over dazzling blue waters, then gradually homes in on an inflatable boat overloaded with refugees. The cool hues and quiet of the open Mediterranean contrast jarringly with the noisy tumult of people tumbling out of the boat at a pebbled beach on Lesvos, where volunteers greet them with hot tea, blankets and transportation. A veritable orange mountain of discarded life jackets testifies to the relentless wave of humanity crashing on the Greek island’s shores.
That dynamic physicality — the stark visual and sonic contrasts, intense eruptions of movement, people framed and challenged by natural settings —
defines “Human Flow.” Ai filmed in 23 countries with more than 200 crewmembers, tracking the movements of human beings displaced by war, climate change and ethnic cleansing.
“We’ve entered a period in world history where human movement across borders has accelerated [and] created inequalities,” Dr. Kemal Kirişci of the Brookings Institution intones later. “It’s going to be a big challenge to recognize that the world is shrinking, and people of different religions, different cultures, are going to have to learn to live with each other.”
Refugees in Lesvos quickly learn to care for each other, but their hopes of traveling to Germany, Sweden and other points in Europe are crushed when, after a grueling trek across grassy fields and rushing rivers, they discover Macedonia has sealed its borders. An already explosive situation is aggravated by a Hungarian fence, which effectively divides the continent. Early scenes shift between refugees’ mounting desperation, stranded in makeshift tents on train tracks in punishing rain, and a sprawling desert tent city where refugees have developed their own economy but no security at the Syrian-Jordanian border.
In a contrast that goes unremarked upon but not unnoticed, Ai shows Jordanian soldiers deferentially escorting children and elderly refugees at a crossing point — one of five now operating, reduced from 45. (In one edifying moment, an officer estimates that the 1.4 million mostly Syrian refugees who have poured into Jordan would be akin to an influx of 60 million into the United States.) At an Italian port, soldiers are conspicuously less solicitous when barking orders at African male refugees to rise and move.
Keenly observed scenes such as these underscore Ai’s assertion (made in a promo clip) that “there is no refugee crisis — only human crisis.” He identifies beauty amidst deprivation, such as wind ruffling metallic blankets in which the African refugees wrap themselves, like a gold wave against inky night skies. Ai’s globe-traversing cuts between camps occasionally confuse, despite captions, but they emphasize the universality of the refugee experience — often with the aid of drone cameras that zoom in from high above to detail teeming landscapes.
Statistics cited in interviews and screen-crawls are staggering. Last year, 7,495 people died while trying to migrate. The average number of years that refugees are displaced from their homes is 26. Climate change will exacerbate drought, hunger and disease for 250 million Africans in the next few years — and Africa’s population is expected to double to 2.5 billion by 2050. Europe hasn’t absorbed this many migrants since post-WWII years. Globally, more than 65 million people have been forcibly displaced. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, 11 countries had walls and closed borders. Now, in 2017, there are more than 70.
The lump sum of those numbers numbs the mind and obscures the individuals on whom Ai steadily focuses. Their human need is overwhelming: food, medicine, housing, employment, integration programs — and education. Edward Said protégé Dr. Hanan Ashrawi somberly warns of one of the pernicious threats to refugee children, many if not most of whom go without schooling for years, potentially seeding future conflict: “If children grow up without any hope, without any prospects for the future, without any sense of them being able to make something out of their lives, then they will become very vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation, including radicalization.”
Unwitting comic relief is supplied at the U.S.-Mexico border, courtesy of a hapless Border Patrol agent’s ludicrous directions. Other lighter, hopeful moments involve animals. Amidst blasted Palestinian buildings and backyards, a man trains a horse. A caged songbird keeps a young man company as he patches a mud wall in Afghanistan, where the president has asked displaced citizens to return from Pakistan. Refugees weary from cold, rain and uncertainty in Turkey brighten at a cat eating from someone’s hand and huddle around a cellphone photo of a feline pet left home in Syria — restorative moments of near normalcy. In Gaza, U.K. animal charity Four Paws collaborates with representatives in Gaza, Israel, Jordan and South Africa to secure safe passage for malnourished tiger Laziz from the disintegrating Gaza zoo to Lionsrock sanctuary in South Africa, so he can feel grass beneath his paws. It is a singular testament to human decency.
Less heartening are interviews in muddy camps where women and girls cook over homemade fires and wash jeans in buckets, and children improvise toys and chase each other around. “I’d like to see the leaders come and sleep here for one night,” one woman says scornfully, describing a hellhole plagued with snakes, spiders and infectious diseases as refugees queue up for hours for food and news of their next destination. A man describes a harrowing journey with smugglers who separated women from their group and raped them: “They had guns, there was nothing we could do … it was very, very tough. No one helped us.” After the controversial EU-Turkey refugee deal is made in March 2016, frustrated refugees hold up protest signs: “EU — Don’t send us back to hell.” “Are we not human?” “RESPECT.”
Now living in Berlin, Ai has personally experienced displacement, and demonstrates sensitivity to his subject matter’s urgency, as headlines are dominated by the Trump administration’s isolationism and anti-immigrant actions from France to Malaysia. At an emergency camp in Bangladesh — where the UN estimates 537,000 Rohingya have fled a brutal military campaign and violent Rakhine Buddhists in Myanmar since late August — a Rohingya Muslim community leader emotionally professes shame at being called a “stateless people” and says they did not want to leave but the “land of our forefathers has been taken”: “We are human, we too have feeling.”
Denied citizenship by Myanmar since 1982, despite centuries-old origins in the region, the Rohingya are described by the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.” The present conflict is layered with historical complexity, but UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has accused Myanmar of implementing “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” via murder, rape, torture, disappearance, burning villages, and decades-long denial of civil rights to its Rohingya population. UN Secretary General António Guterres recently called the burgeoning exodus into Bangladesh “the world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency” — and Bangladesh has yet to officially accord refugee status to the estimated 800,000 Rohingya clustered along its border.
Where can refugees go that they will feel welcome? One young mother, interviewed with her back to the camera to maintain privacy after “roaming endlessly” with her son for 60 days, wonders aloud before vomiting from anxiety: “Where am I supposed to start my new life?”
Ai’s film offers no comforting answers. One thing is evident: However much NIMBY types may protest, “Not my problem” is not a reply the world can afford to make.
“Human Flow” opens Friday, Oct. 20, at the Laemmle Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. Call (310) 478-3836 or visit laemmle.com for show times and ticket prices. Visit humanflow.com to watch a trailer for the film.