The current global refugee crisis is occurring on a scale we haven’t seen since the end of the World War II. Around 65 million people have been displaced because of war, genocide or global warming, necessitating the governments of developed countries to come up with a solution. What do you do when so many people have been forced to flee for their lives but with nowhere to go?
In an attempt to document this crisis as it is happening, filmmaker and artist Ai Weiwei spent a year shooting in over 23 countries to create ‘Human Flow’, an enormous documentary that attempts to capture as much of the scale of the crisis as possible, and put human faces and stories to the overwhelming multitudes. The result is a deeply important and deeply moving film that’s as much a testament to the human spirit as it is a call to arms.
Weiwei and his team use a number of camera tools (from high-end digital cameras to drones to smart phones) to capture images from right within the refugee communities, fleeing from wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Africa, and many other countries. What it creates is a visual tapestry, both beautiful and harrowing, from the tiniest details in a refugee camp to sweeping vistas of thousands of people in motion. A continuing visual motif in the film is the contrast of human beings against nature. We see beautiful tree fields in Europe dotted with makeshift shelters, human beings carrying everything they own through gorgeous countrysides. This extends to refugees at the mercy of the elements in ways they should not have to be, from surviving in torrential rain to flimsy boats across the Mediterranean to desert cliff sides. It’s this attention to detail that makes the footage Weiwei captures and uses all the more distinct and potent, because of the inherent beauty in it, which only amplifies the film’s emotional potency. It tricks us into having an emotional response to the aesthetics, and thus makes us care even more for the human beings within the frame.
This film could have simply been a mediation on image and texture similar to Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy or Ron Fricke's ‘Baraka’ (1992), and you can certainly feel the influences of those documentary-as-experience classics in ‘Human Flow’, but Weiwei intercuts within the footage interviews with important figures in the push for refugee rights, facts and figures displayed as text, a running series of international headlines and personal moments between the artist himself and the refugees. For the most part, this only increases the impact of the film, and makes you feel less of an observer and more a participant. The film’s goal is not just to present the crisis but to educate, to dispel misinformation and to provide a comprehensive document for audiences. It’s here that the film’s true strength lies - while it doesn’t shy away from disturbing or heartbreaking moments, it never tips into being wholly overwhelming. Even at nearly two and a half hours, you never feel its length testing you, Weiwei ensuring that you are engaged and active at all times. It also helps that the film not only focuses on refugee crises in Europe, but around the world, including between Mexico and the U.S. (though Australia doesn’t get a mention despite our own significant human rights violations against refugees).
In decades to come, this will be seen as a defining document of a major crisis where no clear solution has been found, either because of it's scale or a refusal to accept responsibility for it.
There are stumble moments - the editing isn’t as tight as it could be, not an issue of length but more one of rhythm, and while many of the moments between Weiwei and refugees are very powerful, the justification for his presence within the film isn’t always clear and is occasionally incongruous. Still, these flaws are outweighed by the intent and execution of ‘Human Flow’, a documentary of great ambition which actually achieves it. In decades to come, this will be seen as a defining document of a major crisis where no clear solution has been found, either because of its scale or a refusal to accept responsibility for it. It’s a pity that ‘Human Flow’ wasn’t represented at the recent Oscars (it’s a far better film than Best Documentary winner ‘Icarus’), but I have no doubt its place as an important snapshot of this major international catastrophe will be asserted for years to come.