Film Review: ‘Human Flow’ is a Staggering, Stomach Turning Look at the Refugee Crisis

The documentary is the latest film work of Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei is one of today’s most famous living contemporary artists worldwide. His is easily a name that sits alongside those of Jeff Koons and Marina Abramovic within an elite circle of the international art world that affords the highest level of visibility, scrutiny, and frequent controversy. Weiwei does not, however, consider himself to be a celebrity and told us at the New York premiere of his film Human Flow that his fame is simply an indicator of increased responsibility and that the message of his work is strong enough to overcome controversy.

The controversy surrounding Ai’s work stems from its highly economic and political nature. He is frequently critical of the corruption rampant in the Chinese government and has often turned the same critical eye on the state of inequality and oppression in the United States. Some of his most notable works actively confront global systems that directly cause the migration, displacement, disenfranchisement, and loss of culture of large populations.

Human Flow fits appropriately into this larger oeuvre, taking an intense and wide-ranging look at the refugee crisis that is impacting 65 million people worldwide. The film is immense in scope. It swoops from place to place around the globe, looking at refugees in Europe who fled from Syria and Iraq, refugees in Bangladesh who are Rohingya Muslims fleeing government-perpetrated genocide in Myanmar, Palestinian refugees in Jordan and Gaza who have been displaced from their homes since the end of World War II, refugees in Kenya who flee the effects of climate change, and refugees from Afghanistan who have been residing in Pakistan for almost five decades.

The film smartly begins with the facet of the refugee crisis most well known to the western world: the Syrian and Iraqi refugees arriving on rafts to islands in Greece who often have the intention of reaching Germany or the United Kingdom. It uses this as a launching pad for exploring the plights of other refugees around the world. Many shots are captured via drone to reveal the immense size and inhumanity of refugee camps. These images barely feel real, but there is no CGI and no special effects here. Human Flow is simply showing us what it really looks like and sounds like to be in the place of these people.

The film often confronts the viewer with images they feel as though they shouldn’t be seeing. We watch as a woman retches into a bucket handed to her by Weiwei when she is unable to continue telling her story. A man holds up the ID cards of the members of his family who died at sea as he breaks down into tears. Two grown brothers hold each other as they both sob, neither one sure of which government they can turn to for help. In the film’s most graphic moment, a charred and maimed body lays in the dirt and the camera refuses to pull away. As difficult as these images are to witness, they are rendered even more urgent by the insistent statistics and headlines that roll across the screen.

As the film, which is almost two and a half hours in length, rolls forward, we continue to be bombarded with camp after camp as we are introduced to new groups of refugees, each with their own specific complexities. The true triumph of Human Flow is the way it takes these massive crises that are tangled up in kilometers of red tape and bureaucratic nightmares and makes them feel painfully near, urgent, and human. You feel the need of these people when you watch this film.

One of the most surreal segments of the film is when we are suddenly shown the image of a tiger rescued from a war-torn region. The organization Four Paws works to get endangered animals out of dangerous regions and into animal sanctuaries. The man in charge of moving the tiger tells us about the veterinary hassles and the four separate governments he had to deal with to get the tiger all the way to a sanctuary in South Africa. But he was successful. He was able to move this tiger with relative bureaucratic ease halfway across the globe while generation after generation of refugee children are born in camps and have yet to attend a day of school in their lives.

Human Flow doesn’t tell a hopeless story, however. It makes incessant reference to the charter of the European Union, the missions of various humanitarian aid organizations, and highlights nations like Jordan that have been relatively successful at welcoming and integrating refugees. Throughout the film pieces of Buddhist scripture and lines of Syrian, Kurdish, and Persian poetry are interwoven. The ultimate effect is a mood that rises above just misery and becomes something at once honest about the horror of the refugee crisis but hopeful about the ways in which we can help.

The film calls for action like few films that have come before it. Take action.

The screening was followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker, led by Dave Karger.

Human Flow opens at the Angelika Center and at the Landmark at 57 West on October 13. This occurs in conjunction with the opening of “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors”, Ai Weiwei’s site-specific art project installed in three hundred separate sites across New York City.

Photo credit: Indiewire.

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