Chinese artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei released his film, Human Flow, on October 13. With cinematography by Christopher Doyle and a soundtrack by Karsten Fundal, this documentary explores the refugee crisis across many countries and borders, which has been called the greatest instance of human displacement since World War II. The film’s greatest strength is its portrayal of refugees as everyday people trying to find safety for themselves and their families, rather than “terrorists” or “job-stealers,” as some would argue. Through intimate and often lingering footage, Human Flow depicts refugees as individuals facing extreme hardship, rather than as a horde to be feared and excluded.
Human Flow shows refugees fleeing conditions of war and famine, climate change, and oppressive governments across the borders between 23 countries. Shot over the course of one year, Ai includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, France, Greece, Iraq, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, and Turkey, among other countries. His footage is simultaneously personal and grandiose, juxtaposing portraits with aerial footage to portray the magnitude of this crisis. He also shows interpersonal relationships in refugee camps despite cultural divides and harsh conditions.
Ai utilizes multiple techniques in his film. He alternates between slow, bird’s-eye zooms of crowds of people and sprawling refugee camps and close-ups of people shot from the hip using a handheld camera or his iPhone. Purely landscape shots are minimal, and physical places serve more as backdrops of human suffering. With an individual and personal approach, he also appears in person, cutting people’s hair, exchanging passports, and interviewing individuals, ranging from world leaders, volunteers, and refugees.
The film is not driven by characters, and has no plot; rather, it takes on the great task of showing the scale of the refugee crisis. Ai accomplishes this through his ability to showcase multiple countries and various issues. Text appears on the screen as the film transitions between countries to provide brief statistics about the country and its specific refugee crisis. The sparse text serves as the only real narration of the film. While the ability of a director to create a successful film without narration is certainly impressive, more location-specific information would have helped break up a visually impressive but slightly unengaging film.
With a running time of about 2.5 hours, Human Flow is certainly long, and Ai seems unwilling to let go of any of his footage. The simplicity of the soundtrack also adds to the drawn-out feeling of the film. It seemed as though not all of the shots were crucial to the film. The editing process would have benefitted from more cropping of footage.
However, the overall effect of the film is both illuminating and haunting. The often harsh lighting and the inclusion of the sounds of humans in despair, as well as the wide variety of filming techniques, certainly provide a better look at the global refugee crisis. The film is undeniably important in bringing to light the fact that the refugee crisis is global, not just in Syria, on which mainstream media often focuses. The film spends a disproportionately short time on the Mexico-US border, but it generally provides an impressive overall view of the scale of the crisis, and the devastating personal effects it has on individuals.
Ai has created an impressive documentary, and although it is quite long, it is a film worth watching, from both an artistic and humanitarian standpoint.