A documentary by Ai Weiwei. In multiple languages, with English subtitles. Rated PG
Recent years have seen the biggest, most constant movement of people since the Second World War. Most of us know something about the deadly traffic across the Mediterranean or the struggle that Syrians face when they reach North America. But it’s almost impossible to keep the scale and scope of this mass exodus in any one head.
Well, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has an excellent eye for proportions, and to make Human Flow he took 25 film crews to almost as many countries over several years to capture this surge on professional equipment, drone cameras, and his ubiquitous iPhones. The results justify the 140-minute running time not only for the geography covered but Ai’s restless eye for beauty.
This is not to say that he merely aestheticizes the suffering of people caught in perilous situations. (These include: North African boat people landing on Italy’s Lampedusa; Pashtun expats being trucked from Pakistan to uncertain futures in their Afghan homeland; Syrians and Iraqis trekking on a barbed-wire path along Hungary’s closed border; Palestinians living in favelalike squalor just outside of Israel’s massive walls; and Rohingya villagers fleeing Myanmar for Bangladesh—itself beset by violent climate change that is likely to prove as destabilizing as any war.) It’s simply that the intense physicality of his images—sometimes harsh but often filled with mystery—puts you in their places as surely as anything by Terrence Malick or Steven Spielberg.
A project this comprehensive is bound to have crucial gaps, and some are papered over by words from key experts from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other relief groups who explain the major forces behind these desperate migrations. Ai also spends time with ordinary people on their uncertain paths. The bearded, frequently smiling fellow is an avuncular presence, handing out cups of tea and mylar blankets to freezing refugees, and kibitzing with moms juggling small children. Because, let’s face it: even when on the run for a better life, kids can be annoying.
Although he’s better known as an artist of abstractions and subversive humour, Ai is a veteran filmmaker with a dozen features—whether documentaries or video installations—under his belt. Main takeaway from this epic effort? First-world nations are blowing their resources on disrupting the stability of poorer places, through war and commercial exploitation. Then we are shocked—shocked, I tell you—that they’d rather be here than there. Factor in rising seas, devastating weather, human-assisted drought and famine, plus the terror proffered daily by despots and religious fanatics, and you have a recipe for permanent disorder. Basically, we are fluxed.