Human Flow

When there is nowhere to go, nowhere is home.

There are any number of unforgettable images in Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow, a necessary and comprehensive documentary about our planet’s current refugee crisis. The most indelible of them all is an overhead shot of a heap of abandoned lifejackets, the camera lifting to reveal hundreds (or thousands) of the vests piled on top of each other like an endless orange sea. We understand that every one of those lifejackets has a story to tell.

Poster for the refugee documentary Human FlowThis is the beauty of Ai’s film, an intricately woven mosaic that travels to 23 different countries in order to show both the breadth of the refugee crisis and its dehumanizing volume. Human Flow is an epic portrait of mass migration that understands how a lack of empathy often stems from a failure of imagination.

Sometimes, the sheer scope of an atrocity proves too overwhelming for people to comprehend, and so they default to willful obliviousness. Whether it’s the sprawling sierra of life jackets or the burning oil fields of Iraq that ISIS insurgents lit aflame as they made their retreat, or any of the myriad other sights that sustain Ai’s project, the film articulates the danger of allowing a problem to eclipse the people that are suffering from it.

And, a few evocative flourishes notwithstanding, people are front and center, Ai Weiwei most of all. The artist/director is hands-on from the very beginning, wading into the waters off Lesbos and pulling a refugee out of the ocean with one hand even as he shoots footage on his iPhone with the other. Ai’s presence also serves a unifying purpose. There’s a power to seeing the same man engage with refugee populations in places as disparate as Egypt and Mexico. And not just any man, but a refugee himself. Human Flow never references its director’s previous accomplishments, but watching someone of his stature and background interview a group of carefree girls in Gaza reinforces the idea that the arbitrary borders of the old world need to be redrawn for the new one.

Walls aren’t just inhumane, they’re embarrassingly obsolete. And even when images of the various refugee camps blend together and it feels as though the film is in danger of becoming paralyzed by the weight of its central crisis, we’re struck by the raw evidence that the world is shrinking, populations are being displaced, and people from different backgrounds are going to have to learn to live with each other. There’s no other option. Prepare accordingly. Suck it up. Figure out a sustainable immigration policy, because not having one isn’t going to work.

A quote from one of Ai’s subjects hangs over every scene: ‘Being a refugee is much more than a political status. It’s the most pervasive kind of cruelty that can be exercised against a human being. You are forcibly robbing this human being of all aspects that would make life not just tolerable, but meaningful in many ways.’

Cinema may be a machine designed to produce empathy, but this is the rare film that reckons with the difficulty of sustaining it. It doesn’t point the viewer towards a website or try to guilt you into action. It simply tries to broaden your vision and help you to see that denying someone else’s humanity is effectively denying your own.

– David Ehrlich, IndieWire

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