Human Flow (2017)
Updated: Jul 31, 2019
I like a lot of Ai Weiwei’s work, he’s created some very striking pieces across a wide variety of media. He’s also controversial character in his native China and although his views often find empathy in western ears, mine included, I can’t say I agree with everything he says. So I approach this, not his first film, but possibly his most accessible offering (thanks to backing from Amazon) with some trepidation. As you’d expect it’s beautifully shot and coherently so considering multiple crews in different countries helped create this. In part, it’s thoughtful pace, gentle score and wide cinematic vistas are at odds with the shocking reality of these refugees lives, but this is only part of the narrative, the other half is held held footage shot on a phone right in the heart of these tragedies. It’s the difference in shots between ‘I’d like to visit there, maybe to help” and “That looks like hell, this is hopeless”. A lot of copy fills the screen, details on the different humanitarian crises around the world, covering the gaps between short clipped interviews, dramatic drone shots and carefully crafted sequences. I’m afraid I felt it exploitative at times. Art from others hopelessness. Is Ai Weiwei trying to show us the reality not depicted in the news, I’d like to think so, but he does wander uncomfortably close to something more self fulfilling at times. The film’s main emphasis is on numbers, thousands, millions of people affected. Undoubtably it’s very sad to see so many people displaced, young children, travelling hundreds or thousands of miles across the world... in hope. Hope of finding somewhere peaceful, away from war. War for fucks sake, not natural disasters, famine or disease, completely avoidable war. Hungry. Trapped in their thousands at closed borders. Living in tents if they’re lucky. So despite Ai Weiwei adding some artistic cinematic sheen, this is still incredibly powerful, dare I say important. Will it help? Will it shine a light on these events, make a difference? I don’t know to be perfectly honest, but I think it’s better that this film exists than doesn’t. One quote that sticks “When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there were 11 countries around the world with border fences and walls. By 2016, 70 countries had built border fences and walls.” It’s clear that a lot of money is spent in controlling the flow of people, cruelly policing them, Italian border control numbering and photographing Africans dressed in white jumpsuits is bloody disturbing to see. Add to all this, red tape hindering any kind of progress in too many situations, any situation is too many. When this many people are amassed together, they cease to be seen as people, they become those numbers on the screen. At well over 2 hours, there’s almost too much. Afghanistan, Greece, Kenya, Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, all different, different conflicts, different histories, different politics and although there’s not a magic solution, there is balance and understanding shown here. However the non refugee side is only shown once in any depth, that of the efforts in Germany, that although doing seemingly all it can, it still falls short. It’s acknowledged that the free movement system in Europe simply collapsed under the amount of people moving. That the Middle East walls and separation can only be solved if the guns are put down. So what’s the take away?... People are going to have to learn to live with each other.