In his documentary film Human Flow, famed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei paints a picture of the global refugee crisis through riveting footage collected from over 23 countries. Weiwei’s film revels in a sort of aesthetic humanism, tackling emotionally-charged, heavy subject matter from a distance, drone camera in tow. His is a project in raising empathy over all else, providing viewers not with detailed, definitive lists of his film subjects’ challenges, but rather with general overviews of their experiences, designed to elicit a specific emotional response.
One of the consequences of Weiwei’s scaled-out approach is a blurring of experiences; the film skips from country to country, making it difficult to remember which group was at one particular place, much less exactly which hardships are being experiencing by which population. African migrants arrive in Italy without any description of which African countries they come from; the film plainly labels them as “African” before proceeding to focus on the visual spectacle of them being wrapped in gold foil blankets and given matching white jumpsuits.
An elderly Rohingya woman in a Bangladeshi refugee camp glares at a camera which refuses to cut away and I cannot help but feel unease. Small moments such as this seem to be the product of unwelcome intrusions into the everyday by Weiwei’s camera crew, and at times it feels that the film is more involved with the aesthetics of depicting the refugee experience than preserving its subjects’ humanity. While part of me appreciates Weiwei’s artistic experimentation with the documentary form, there are many questions raised as to how the film’s visual stylings might mask underdeveloped content.
Yet one plus side to Weiwei’s holistic narrative strategy is that it becomes possible to see commonalities between migrant experiences rather than differences, even as we as viewers are jetted and shunted from place to place. The final feeling I left the theater with was one of urgency as well as empathy; no nation is left unchallenged, and there is a larger suggestion that we are all responsible for the wellbeing of the planet’s people.
An Afghan woman at the Greek-Macedonian border muses that “no one leaves their country lightly”; while I am skeptical of some of the methods Weiwei used in his film, ultimately I do believe that Human Flow manages to convey the weight of this heavy journey to its viewers, helping us realize the moral imperative of addressing the migrant crisis today.