Human Flow Review

Ai Wei Wei Turns Director


Chinese contemporary artist, political activist and director, Ai Wei Wei, blends visionary artistry and empathetic humanitarianism in an intimate look at the unprecedented refugee crisis.

Having visited two of the artist’s exhibitions—one at the Royal Academy in London and the other at Downing College in Cambridge—I was familiar with Ai Wei Wei’s backstory. Having once spent 81 days in prison after being arrested by the Chinese government in 2011 for alleged ‘economic crimes’, the 60-year old artist now lives in relative exile in his studio in Berlin.

As a refugee himself, he knows better than to appear merely as a filmmaker in the desperately tragic places he visits in Human Flow. His mumbling, gentle presence is seen mucking in from the off. Doing what he can to help, he barbecues kebabs in a dusty campsite, pulls refugees out of the water in Greece and consoles a grief stricken woman when she breaks down mid-interview; her back to the camera.

The documentary is narrated by helpful excerpts and headlines from media outlets like CNN and The Washington Post, as well as helpful factual information. Perhaps the most shocking fact is that the current refugee crisis accounts for the greatest human displacement since World War II.

It’s an ambitious story to tell, and one that is difficult to imagine any other person telling as considerately as Ai Wei Wei. Unlike equally as shocking docufilms from recent years, like The Cove, Winter on Fire or Blackfish, Human Flow doesn’t bash you and break you in to submission in aid of its campaign. In fact, there is no resolution or answer when it’s all said and done. There is no call to action at all. There is only an eye opening education in what’s really happening to the people that the then Prime Minister David Cameron divisively called a ‘swarm’.

From Lesbos to Calais, Gaza to Paris, Syria to Germany, Afghanistan to Bangladesh, more than 65 million people are displaced in the world today. One in every 113 people on the planet is a refugee.

The stories of individual refugees are covered, but they’re unconventional in their subject matter. Ai Wei Wei chooses to let a bored schoolgirl express her frustration at the tedium of living on camp and in contrast, the general contentedness and feeling of community of a group of refugee school girls.

Really though, it’s the imagery that does the talking. Anyone that has visited Auschwitz might guess where Ai Wei Wei found the inspiration for some of his climbing drone shots. Thinking particularly about the film’s closing shot of thousands of disposed life jackets used by refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea. It has the same effect that the several thousands of shoes piled atop one another in the famous concentration camp has.

It’s in the same breath though, that I have to address the film’s greatest test. It’s the very thing the film is striving to overcome: with a problem of this magnitude, how do you make people care enough to act?

Evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s theory goes that a group of 150 people is the maximum size of social mass we as humans can handle when thinking about relationships and our obligations to others. Assuming that’s true, how then, do we find the empathy and drive within us to truly do something for the 65 million refugees?

Maybe we don’t have to. Maybe it’s not us, the general public, that the responsibility falls to. In a recent interview, Ai Wei Wei was asked when the refugees in his film would get to see it? He responded by saying that was never the point. The point was for those of influence to see it; the leaders in the EU, the United States and elsewhere with the power to help.

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