In Human Flow, artist, activist, and filmmaker Ai Weiwei takes viewers on a trek of the refugee crisis plaguing countries around the world. From the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the Americas, there are currently upwards of 65 million people displaced, the largest number since the end of WWII. The problem is staggering, and through the artful lens of Weiwei’s camera, we are called upon to witness the atrocities…and not look away.
The film opens with a gorgeous aerial shot of open water and a single white bird flying across the vast ocean. We are meant to marvel at it’s beauty until a large raft comes into frame, filled with people all wearing brightly colored orange life vests. Anyone who has been paying attention to the news knows that this raft is not full of people out on a leisurely boat ride. It’s full of people who made the hardest decision of their lives. To flee their home countries by making the perilous journey across the sea. It’s the first of many aerial drone shots that Weiwei will use to contrast the beauty of our world and its ugliness. The flow of crystal blue water, and the endless flow of people across every crevice of the world’s vast landscapes.
The footage that Weiwei and his crew of 200 are able to get is astounding, as is the remarkable scope of his film. From the shores of Greece, we watch Syrian refugees make the long journey on foot through Northern Greece hoping to cross the Macedonian border and eventually Serbia and Croatia. In Italy, people from Ethiopia and the Sudan are fleeing violence but also the effects of global warming that have destroyed their abilities to produce food and keep livestock alive. They sit in careful rows, faces shellshocked from their journey as officials yell back and forth in angry Italian. What will their future hold? What are these people yelling? Am I being sent back? I can’t imagine trying to process my surroundings in such a state. And this is only the beginning of the refugee story that Human Flow seeks to tell.
It may seem at this point that Human Flow is little more than an exploitative film, meant to use the faces of crying children to tug at our heartstrings, our fists raised to the sky in anguish. But Weiwei has the uncanny ability to show the dignity these people possess amidst all the loss and hardship. When his camera lingers in closeup on their faces it says, look at the human being here, not the stateless individual. When they speak their voices are full of despair but there is a fire there too, a determination to make it out of their circumstances and demand that the world see them as people worthy of basic human rights. It’s impossible to look away.
The situation feels like a hopeless one and Weiwei doesn’t waste time infusing his film with platitudes to make viewers feel better about their inaction. Human Flow is a call to action. Humanitarian aid exists, and there are legitimate refugee camps (some even have their own economy), but more often than not when refugees are stuck at border crossings with no where to go they are living with little more than a tarp over their heads and a single sandwich in their belly they had to wait two hours in line for. Our current “solutions” to the crisis are not working and the problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Change needs to happen, the world needs to start seeing refugees as people and Human Flow does its part to remind us.
Human Flow opens today at the Ritz Bourse.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.