Human Flow, the new film from Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, is more than just a powerful activist documentary. Focusing on the global refugee crisis, the film may serve as a rousing call to action for many viewers. But it’s also a conceptual undertaking, as interested in provoking thought as it is feeling, as concerned with systems as people. The resulting film is a necessarily complex, difficult pill to swallow.
Ai travels the globe, visiting the places at which refugees arrive, the conflict zones from which they’ve been displaced and the precarious routes they take. He speaks with those making the journey, the volunteers aiding them and the analysts confronting the crisis.
Ai remains a mostly-silent, Tati-esque presence, straight-faced yet jovial, kindly and empathetic. Much of the film is shot on his smartphone.
Human Flow is, in some ways, a meditation on the numbers and statistics associated with the global refugee crisis. Ai repeatedly displays figures onscreen, informing the audience of the metrics of global displacement.
There are, for example, 65 million people currently displaced by war, famine, persecution or other factors. That’s higher than any time since the Second World War. We learn how many refugees each country hosts, where they’ve come from and so on.
Ai shows the human face behind these numbers, but he resists the old adage that “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” His view never becomes too personal or myopic.
He understands that the separation between numbers and humanity, intellect and emotion, logistics and pain are part of why mass tragedies can be perpetuated. Rather than capitulating to the adage, he dismantles it.
It’s an approach he’s often taken in his artwork. For example, his 2010 installation Sunflower Seeds incorporated 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds. He employed 1,600 workers from Jingdezhen, China, a city that has produced renowned porcelain for more than a thousand years, to make the seeds (sunflower seeds were a prominent symbol in Maoist propaganda).
Ai combined the individual craftsmanship of the seeds with their overwhelming numbers to confront how China’s populace are exploited for mass-production.
While the film could have benefited from some of the formal adventurousness of Ai’s artwork, its gut-wrenching images require no embellishment.
Seven hundred people are crammed into a boat that could perhaps comfortably seat a dozen. One migrant slips while wading through a river in Greece. The water is only knee-deep, but the current is strong and in an instant, he loses his shoes and backpack, probably everything he owns. These are two such moments of literally hundreds.
Bumping up against it all is the infuriating apparatus keeping these desperate people from safety. Militarized border security, barbed wire and tanks snake across Europe, protecting its people from … what, exactly? Babies? Grandparents? Old men with pacemakers? Never has anti-refugee sentiment seemed as wretched.
The film’s most discouraging notion is that the political will and resources exist to individually criminalize 65 million displaced people, but not to hold criminally accountable the small handful of powerful people responsible for their displacement.