‘Human Flow’: Film Review | Venice 2017

Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei tells an inconvenient truth about the refugee crisis in ‘Human Flow.’

The image that sticks in the mind from Human Flow, the long, engrossing, visually stunning documentary on world migration directed by the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, is a drone’s-eye-view of colored dots on a sandy desert palette. They look like so many abstract points, yet each dot (as we shall see) is a human being and represents a world of agony and suffering that cry out for a moral response. Poetic but uncompromising images like these, along with the director’s international reputation as one of the major artists of our time, should help committed audiences overcome their resistance to watching a film about the refugee crisis, a topic that has been numbed by TV overkill.

Shot in 23 countries, the film has an amazing breadth and a relentless moral drive that will make it a reference point for this subject, whatever the audience response may be. Amazon Studios has announced a limited release in the U.S. in October after the film’s premiere in competition at Venice, followed by many international playdates. In any case, this is an ambitious cinematic leap forward for Ai Weiwei, who has previously shot videos and installations on urban infrastructures and who has addressed social themes like world migration in his artwork, always in striking and original ways that force the viewer to see the obvious through new eyes. Here there is more sweep, less insight. But even though some of the material feels familiar, the sheer mass of facts presented in the 140-minute doc offers numerous surprises that grab attention.

The Bottom Line

A compelling overview of hell on earth.

Throughout the film, the director makes discreet appearances on camera talking to — and sometimes comforting — his subjects, offering them “respect and concern.” His round Buddha face and gentle humor are reassuring that there is still humanity, somewhere, in the midst of disaster.

For those struggling to understand the epic dimensions and future implications of the mass exodus and relocation of people that is now underway around the globe, he makes a compelling, militant call to the viewer to stop dallying and come to terms with the numbers. They are huge. Upwards of 65 million migrants are currently fleeing hunger, climate change and war in their homelands. As in many otherwise effective docs that collect big numbers, these hard facts tend to leave the viewer feeling helpless to make a difference.

Lensed by a dozen cinematographers including Christopher Doyle and the director himself, the narrative is wide-ranging and free-wheeling, jumping from Iraq (4 million Iraqis are currently displaced) to the Greek island of Lesbos, where half a million refugees land in boats and rafts in a year. There is a stop in Bangladesh, the arrival country for the Muslim Rohingya minority of Myanmar (approximately half a million people in diaspora), who are being burnt out of their homes by their Buddhist neighbors.

Ai and his crew are highly mobile and often rival news reporters in being at hot spots where dramatic events are taking place. They tag along with an exhausted group of refugees who, after landing in Greece, walk all the way to Macedonian border, only to find themselves repulsed by a barbed wire fence and police patrols. (Statistic: According to the film’s count in 2016, 70 countries have erected border fences of some kind.) Stranded in huge, makeshift camps or living in soggy rain-soaked tents between the train tracks, the immigrants find themselves stranded in no man’s land and desperate. It is impressive how they adamantly refuse any idea of going back home, though their reasons are not explored here. “Don’t send us back to hell,” one woman says in tears. 

The doc casts a critical eye on the antiseptic treatment afforded migrants by aid workers. The images show Africans being helped off rafts by Italian authorities wearing masks, being marched onto buses and being given gold plastic “space blankets” to keep warm. Ai’s is not the first artistic eye to capture the bizarrely poetic shot of frightened, wide-eyed African boys wrapped in gold foil capes on a dark night. Gianfranco Rosi’s award-winning Fire at Sea contains similar images, but it takes the opposite approach to Human Flow in using a few individuals and details to signal a global drama.

Here the subject seems too vast to do more than sketch. When Ai mentions the cruelty of robbing refugees of their identity, then of all their human rights, he touches the tip of an iceberg that could be the subject of a separate film, one that would also have to delve into the human trafficking aspects of African migration to Europe. As the doc points out, the post-war European system of accepting dribbles of asylum-seekers, mostly from Eastern Europe, has collapsed under today’s biblical movements of people. In the highly organized Germany, for example, 1.3 million immigrants have found a temporary home, but the scene of their “humane” housing in a converted airport hangar is depressing.

But it’s not just Europe. Jordan still has two million Palestinians and their descendants from the wars of 1948 and 1967, plus 1.4 million new refugees from Syria. The camera shows them camped in an endless tent city in the desert. Lebanon has taken in two million Syrian refugees, a third of the country’s population. Pakistan hosts three million Afghans displaced during 40 years of warfare.

The statistics are mind-boggling and the viewer can be excused from not knowing what to feel most indignant about. Ai lays blame for much misery on ISIS, which emerged as an “unintended consequence” of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. However, there is very little analysis in a film that concentrates on resonant imagery and landscapes to describe a shrinking world.

A drone’s view of ants on a fence slowly zooms in to reveals refugees swarming along a maze of white Turkish streets. There are half a million displaced Kurds in Turkey, which has cut a well-publicized deal with the European Community to block the flow of immigrants and now “hosts” some three million refugees, though only a tenth of them live in assisted camps; the rest are barely surviving. And living in Africa, south of the Sahara desert, are 26 percent of all the world’s refugees.

Syrian astronaut Muhammed Faris, who is now a refugee in Istanbul, says that when he was an astronaut looking down at Earth, he saw each person as an individual. This paradox dogs the film. In the end, few individuals emerge from Ai’s sweeping vision of hell on earth. A group of frustrated girl students in Gaza tell him they feel like they’re living in a big prison. At one point, Afghan families are loaded onto colorful trucks and driven back home to Afghanistan to rebuild their lives. But then the cold shower: Their homes and land are long gone or occupied and most of them will end up in shanty towns around urban centers.

Is there any ray of hope in this heart-breaking accumulation of stories? Yes, there is one success story told in Human Flow, but it belongs to a tiger, a magnificent beast that somehow strayed into Gaza through one of the tunnels dug to Egypt. Now a restless captive in a poor, hot zoo, he paces in circles of frustration in his cage, until at last he finds a sponsor who pays to have him flown to South Africa and released into the wild, while a dozen animal handlers flurry around him. The irony requires no comment, nor does Ai make any.

Production companies: AC Films, Participant Media
Director: Ai Weiwei
Screenwriters: Chin-chin Yap, Tim Finch, Boris Cheshirkov
Producers: Ai Weiwei, Chin-chin Yap, Heino Deckert
Executive producers: Andy Cohen, Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann
Directors of photography: Murat Bay, Christopher Doyle, Lv Hengzhong, Wenhai Huang, Konstantinos Koukoulios, Renaat Lambeets, Dongxu Li, Johannes Waitermann, Ai Weiwei, Ma Yan, Zanbo Zhang, Xie Zhenwei
Editor: Niels Pagh Andersen
Music: Karsten Fundal
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)

World sales: Lionsgate International

140 minutes