Film Review: Human Flow

Ai Weiwei’s sprawling dispatch from the frontlines of the worldwide refugee catastrophe is an ambitious call to action that’s very nearly undone by its sometimes self-defeating beauty.
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Human Flow is possibly the most visually resplendent piece of nonfiction cinema you will see this year. With this movie, multidisciplinary artist and occasional political enfant terrible Ai Weiwei has made a crucially important visual and philosophical document of the modern refugee crisis. We might be watching it 20 years from now to understand either how bad things used to be or where it all started to go horribly wrong. But alongside the myriad of prickly policy and ethical questions it raises, ranging from the rights of people in an increasingly fractious and crowded world to the responsibilities of developed nations to care for refugees from failed or failing states, comes another unintended one that nearly scuppers its message: Should human misery be this gorgeous?

Shot over 23 countries with a team of cinematographers that includes the great Christopher Doyle, Ai Weiwei’s searing epic of transitional anxiety wants to dive right into the teeming, fretful multitudes currently crossing borders in nearly unprecedented numbers. It starts in the Mediterranean, where wave after wave of Middle Easterners come ashore on the island of Lesbos, the first stage on their hopeful journey to Germany. Like refugees everywhere, the people Ai catches, both with a film crew and his ubiquitous phone, look dazed and unmoored after coming so far and with so much territory yet to cover. A Syrian woman talks about how her family left their home because the missiles were “falling like rain.”

They are just some of the 65 million people who have been displaced, a greater number than at any time since World War II. As the movie moves across the globe, it comes across one scene after another of a world in unprecedented flux. Every now and again, Ai will put some facts or figures up on the screen or interview an aid worker or professional for context, and the comparisons to the postwar era keep coming up. The 1951 Refugee Convention that defines what a refugee is and established the responsibilities of nations to care for them was written in the immediate aftermath of history’s most calamitous conflict. But, as one aid worker points out, today “the conflicts are still waging.” Also, unlike during the postwar years, there is no Marshall Plan for Syria, or sub-Saharan Africa, or Iraq, Somalia or any of the other gyres of conflicts sending millions of frightened people fleeing their homes.

Refugee Convention or not, the people Ai finds don’t exactly find themselves welcomed everywhere they go. In a movie made almost equally of kindness and callousness, we go from the sailors and medical personnel rescuing starving Africans from dangerously overcrowded boats to the imposing barbed-wire fences erected along the Hungarian border to keep all refugees out. Increasingly over the course of the movie, Ai places himself in the middle of this tide of humanity. This is done most memorably in a sequence that follows an improbably long line of people—Afghanis and Syrians, their homes reading like a map of the smoldering battlefields of the post-9/11 era—snaking their way through northern Greece, only to be stymied by the fencing at the Macedonian border.

Ai is a genial presence whose passive exterior and friendly countenance belie a frequently biting rage at institutional neglect. He gets his hair cut in one camp, coos in another over a woman’s pictures of her adorable cat, and generally does his best to empathize with the refugees’ painful status of no longer being able to live safely at home and unable to find a new home that will accept them. He wanders the teeming refugee cantonments of the Middle East, the sprawling tent cities along the Syrian-Jordanian border, the “Jungle” encampment in Calais where refugees try to stow away aboard trucks bound for England, and the onetime Palestinian camps in Gaza and Lebanon that after decades have almost unwillingly metastasized into ersatz cities.

Too often, though, the director’s artist eye for the breathtaking angle pushes the movie into something that would feel more at home in an art gallery than a theatre. The eye-of-god drone shots over these camps are uniformly breathtaking, as is the footage of improbably lush valleys in eastern Turkey, the apocalyptic sandstorms of Kenya, and the black clouds of flaming oilfield smoke smothering the skies around embattled Mosul. That almost unseemly attention to visual composition distracts from Ai’s resolutely humane message more than once; a shot of him shooting himself holding a sign with a pro-refugee hashtag takes us even further down the well of artistic self-regard.

Human Flow also suffers from some lapses in editorial control. The Kenya portion, as well as one done on the plight of the Rohingya Muslims fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, are strangely brief. A segment filmed along the U.S.­-Mexico border seems tossed in almost at random. There are some eye-catching shots alongside the border wall, houses crowded right up to it on the Mexican side and nothing but empty scrub brush on the other. But Ai focuses on an encounter with a border guard who politely advises him to remain on the right side of the border; there might be a point being made here about the arbitrariness of borders, but it’s not expanded upon.

As an anthemic and heartsick movie about a world in turmoil, Human Flow cannot be expected to provide all the answers. Because it tries to document as much as possible of the unsettling uncertainty sweeping the globe, and the fearful barriers being raised in a likely fruitless attempt to keep the unsettled at bay, this movie is nothing less than necessary viewing. That’s true even if its frequently beautiful moments feel ill-placed amidst so much suffering.

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