Sixty-five million people in the world today have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Those millions flee the lives they were born into because of war, oppression, resource scarcity and a variety of other factors. It’s a human rights challenge on a massively global scale, affecting nearly every country in the world. Making it worse is a recent dominance of anti-refugee rhetoric in the Western world, a harmful sentiment that is powerfully countered with the epic empathy of the documentary about that human rights challenge, “Human Flow.”
“Human Flow” is directed by Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, now working in Berlin with a lofty reputation in the international art world and as a noted dissident in his home country. The film shares many of its stylings with his diverse visual portfolio, including its ambition, scope, structural experimentation and activist purpose. “Human Flow” serves as a companion piece to his most recent installation, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” a project spearheaded by the New York City Public Art Fund that repurposes fences into sculptures that illuminate the lives and struggles of refugees across the globe.
Weiwei filmed “Human Flow” during the course of one year in more than 20 countries, capturing the journeys of a variety of migrants. He focuses mostly on Syrian and Palestinian refugees attempting to relocate to neighboring countries and Europe. He also explores the lives of African migrants fleeing war and poverty, Rohingya Muslims fleeing genocide and many other ethnic groups over the course of the film’s epic 140 minutes. During its shoot, the film’s team encounters various dangers, including an almost absurdist encounter with a guard on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The most remarkable aspect of Weiwei’s filmmaking by far is its focus. With such an ambitious scope, it runs the risk of feeling too broad. He makes the viewer feel the staggering human cost and breadth of the topic at hand, while still honing in on the individual experiences of those in front of the camera. The stories told by refugees onscreen are by turn heartbreaking and illuminating, including one of a family that was literally decimated by sea travel, putting a human face on an issue whose portrayal in media can often rob it of its humanity. In this sense, the film itself is an elaborate balancing act performed with the utmost precision.
On an aesthetic level, Weiwei challenges the technological and artistic limits of the documentary form, using drone footage in some of the most innovative ways ever captured. In particular, one image of massive piles of orange life vests washed up on a rocky shore stands out, the camera starting at ground level and slowly flying upward to the sky. It’s an appropriate summation of Weiwei’s apparent vision with the film — start with the intimate and move out to reveal the sheer magnitude of our world’s current situation.
The primary issue with “Human Flow” starts when Weiwei himself complicates the film with his own presence. Included are several scenes that inject his own story of making the film into the broader narrative canvas. One moment stands out in particular when Weiwei is framed in the center of the image, receiving a haircut in the middle of a refugee camp. The scene serves no particular purpose, only distracting from the larger point of the picture, which is to provide a glimpse into the scale of the humanitarian crisis. In essence, letting the stories of the camera’s subjects speak for themselves is the most empathetic thing a filmmaker can do, and Weiwei mostly succeeds at that — even if he brings into question the ethical role of a director. For instance, a few of these moments do feel natural, such as one where he comforts a woman whom he interviews.
Another hit-or-miss decision on Weiwei’s part is the inclusion of various quotes throughout the film, all of which probe deeper intertextual thought on the part of the audience but appear tacked-on at the same time. An epigraph at the film’s opening would have been less distracting. Instead of letting the remarkably powerful images elicit these responses in the viewer, it feels like Weiwei is attempting to force a reaction with the use of words. Even though these passages have some value as broader readings, they feel misplaced in the end. Onscreen text serves one truly vital function in the film, however, with scrolling news headlines appearing across the bottom of the screen to provide necessary political context — all the while brilliantly alluding to the literal flow of information in the internet age.
Despite its flaws, “Human Flow” is an essential film for all to see. It’s a fiercely effective, polemic documentary with no shortage of aesthetic innovations and perhaps one of the most important messages a film can convey in today’s world. It’s a film about the fact that all human beings must learn to live with and help one another. To audiences around the world, Ai Weiwei has delivered what is perhaps the cinematic work of highest social importance released in 2017.