Rather than pick a few interesting personal stories out of the millions of displaced people across the globe, Ai Weiwei keeps his focus on the scale of the worldwide Human Flow in his new documentary.
By stretching the narrative across 23 different countries, Ai Weiwei also zooms out from the handful of countries normally associated with refugees and fills in gaps in western public consciousness. Twenty three countries are visited over a year including Bangladesh, Gaza and Mexico as well as Germany, Greece, Iraq, Italy, Kenya, Lebanon, Macedonia and Pakistan.
A mixture of cinematography showcases serene drone shots which demonstrate the scale of movement with handheld footage getting up close and personal with refugees. Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei often somewhat self-indulgently wanders into shot, filming what he sees on his camera phone and talking to people on the move. A UNHCR spokesperson adds the scale marker to the picture that the filmmaker is creating: 65 million people have been forcibly displaced across the world.
The opening scene of a bird flying across a blue sky is quickly contrasted with an overhead shot of a small boat packed with people making its way across the blue sea. Freedom vs organised smuggling or trafficking. There’s poetry and unspoken narrative in these moments of high quality cinematography, later repeated with shots that soar over refugee camps, showing off the block layout and fire breaks between rows of tents and semi-permanent huts and caravans. But these arty shots are not allowed to dominate the imagery.
The shaky bodycam and phone footage shows refugees being given blankets and warm tea as they step onto the European shore. Women describe living under the ‘rain’ of missiles, fired and landing without warning, and drone footage once again takes viewers to the flattened suburban landscapes from which they fled.
Over 140 minutes Ai Weiwei tours areas of displacement across the world, walking and talking alongside families and individuals making their way towards safety. The white infectious disease protection jumpsuits worn by rescued refugees are suggestive of dehumanisation. While the ethnically cleansed Rohingya community now living in Bangladesh are labelled as ‘stateless people’ and ‘boat people’, the film notes that they are primarily humans.
One contributor sums up her aim:
“… on a daily basis make people feel like human beings and know that we really care about them.”
The contrast between beautifully-crafted footage and guerrilla filming (complete with the howl of the wind in the uncovered mics) prevents the audience from sitting back in their seats to take a clinical at the problem. It is rough and ready, and in our faces. The film’s editing is deliberately ragged: some cuts are very sharp, other shots are allowed to linger and give space to think.
Fifty minutes into the film there’s a sobering reminder that this is not a travel documentary, and that while sea crossings are inherently dangerous, crossing land brings with it risks of rape, torture, slavery and death.
Wherever Ai Weiwei takes his camera, there are long trails of people walking along roads and tented camps of different shapes and sizes. There are flows of people seemingly perpetually on the move, never staying still, searching for alternative security and overcoming natural obstacles like rivers.
The only thing that halts the movement are man-made barriers: border fences have multiplied six-fold since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The film visits politically-sealed borders with barbed wire and guards between Greece and Macedonia, as well as the patrolled border between the US and Mexico. Grown men cry with the helplessness of neither being able to step forward, nor step back to return home.
Palestinians living in Gaza speak about the difficulty of younger people growing up with stereotypes, not knowing the area before the walls and not having the opportunity to get to know and understand Israelis. Symbolically Ai Weiwei includes footage of Laziz the tiger being rescued from a cramped Gaza ‘zoo’. In a cruel irony, the tiger is helped to escape through Israel to enjoy a new life in South Africa, unlike the humans left behind in the caged-in region.
With 26% of global refugees hosted in sub-Saharan Africa, the cameras call at Dadaab in Kenya, a cluster of five refugee camps. They also visit the refugee camp inside Berlin’s former Tempelhof Airport, an Ideal Home Exhibition-like vista of roofless cubicles built indoors. Normal patterns of life – births, marriages, deaths and even haircuts –
Cash grants are used as an incentive for Afghans now living in Pakistan to return home. With the best will in the world, after 30 or 40 years they cannot always return to their family’s plot of land, and their villages may still be insecure. So they remain displaced and dislocated, just no longer in Pakistan.
The reality of arriving in Europe is somewhat at odds with the continent’s reputation of human dignity and respect. In my screening, applause broke out when former Syrian astronaut Muhammed Faris gave his perspective of looking down on Earth and realising how humankind shares the planet.
Watching the film I couldn’t help but wonder at the effort and ingenuity that governments invest in securing and surveilling borders as opposed to changing the many different reasons that continue to cause forced migration around the world.
Human Flow’s distribution in UK cinemas was brief and patchy: however you will still find it playing in London screens and some larger independent cinemas. And the producers welcome opportunities for churches, museums, schools and other organisations to register their interest in showing the film.
Avoiding the temptation to over-moralise or point too many fingers – though European Union policies do come under its microscope – Human Flow provides a global perspective on a global problem and its duration is sufficient to give each audience member time to react to the scale of the story on screen.