Human Flow: Ai Weiwei Paints Harrowing Portrait in Beautifully Shot Refugee Documentary
Putting a human face to one of the largest migration crisis since WWII, Human Flow comes from the heart of one of China’s best-known visual artists and rebellious political activist, Ai Weiwei who – through the use of visceral and heartbreaking images of resilience, indignity and despair – takes us on a journey into a world that continues to be ignored, shelved or forgotten by many.
Shot in 23 countries, this sprawling and uncompromising documentary has been compiled from over 900 hours of footage featuring the struggling journeys of millions of refugees who have been forced to leave their homes as a direct result of either war, famine or climate change. Stretching from the beaches of Greece to Berlin Tempelhof – a Nazi-era airport in Germany currently ‘home’ to over 3,000 refugees – to the overflowing camps in Iraq, the film covers a total of 40 refugee campsites throughout its 140-minute runtime, offering widespread insight into the ongoing struggles of people who have been stripped from their homes and dignity and humans who have been degraded and dehumanized in more ways than one as a result.
It’s a harrowing portrayal of one of the world’s worst man-made crisis and an ambitious feat for the director whose frequent use of aerial shots, portraying rivers of people marching onto an uncertain future, resembling something you might see on a National Geographic program but, instead of seeing hordes of animals seeking new pastures, streams of men, women and children come into focus. The comparison is nothing short of distressing and most significantly, applicable. The director himself, a man who can relate to their struggles, having been a refugee himself, also makes several appearances throughout the film and if he is not making small-talk with a group of girls in Gaza or interviewing Princes Dana of Jordan, he can be seen swapping passports with a Syrian asylum seeker. He is observant, lovable and caring and regardless of the temptation, he never makes the story about anyone else than his subjects.
Introducing the different chapters of the story with the lines of famous writers and Buddhist scriptures, Human Flow is intricate and intimate in its depiction. Serving as an expansive and beautifully put-together montage, rather than a standard talking-heads documentary – an aspect of the film which will unfortunately test some viewers who might be looking for central characters – the director relies mostly on his silent and visually sweeping imagery to tell their story.
With a total of twelve cinematographers on board – including the acclaimed visionary, Christopher Doyle – Human Flow’s visual and storytelling beauty is sorrowful and arresting and it successfully manages to capture the sheer magnitude of the problem at hand; a universal crisis which is constantly failing to come to a resolution and a terrible predicament no one seems to be taking responsibility for.