Review: ‘Human Flow’

Ai Weiwei delivers an exceptional doc

7 mins read

Human Flow
(Germany, 140 min.)
Dir. Ai Weiwei


“The more immune you are to people’s suffering,” says Princess Dana Firas of Jordan in Human Flow, “that’s very dangerous. “It’s critical for us to maintain this humanity.”

Firas speaks with filmmaker and artist Ai Weiwei for his exceptional documentary Human Flow. The film calls attention to Firas’s words by drawing upon the common elements of humanity that endure in the most precarious of places. Human Flow emphasizes an urgent global plight as Ai travels the globe and observes stories of migration. The range of subjects might be vast and compelling, but they’re a mere drop in the ocean that ripples with 65 million lives displaced worldwide.

These 65 million lives put Human Flow in good company with several documentaries tackling the global migration crisis and related-conflicts that displace citizens of the world. Oscar nominees like Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea and Daphe Matziaraki 4.1 Miles offer stories about the refugees cross the waters to Lampedusa and Greece, respectively, and wait in limbo if they survive the journey. A bevy of recent docs capture the complexities of the Civil War in Syria with The White Helmets, City of Ghosts, and Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS being the strongest films of the bunch. Human Flow might be the best of these docs thanks to Ai’s scope and humanist eye. The film addresses these issues with depth and complexity, but Human Flow is also an extraordinary work of art.

It feels awkwardly indecent to raise the question of aesthetics only 300 words into a review on a topic so urgent, yet the visual power of Human Flow makes it so compelling. Ai doesn’t preach, sermonize, or wag fingers. He instead gives captivating observational portraits of refugee camps around the world that demand attention. The team of cinematographers, which includes the great Christopher Doyle, employs a range of cameras including smartphones, drones, and Go Pros to offer myriad vantage points from which to see the crisis. The film is often painful to watch, but the visual power of the film and Ai’s easygoing rapport with the refugees encourages empathy and compassion.

The bulk of Human Flow considers the many Syrians (over five million and counting) who have left the country as refugees. The film gives voice to survivors who tell Ai stories of their escape. Ai visits refugee camps in Lebanon, where Syrian refugees now account for a quarter of the small country’s population, and Turkey, which houses 2.5 million Syrians whose lives are put in danger by the deal struck between Turkey and the European Union to clamp the human flow to Europe.

The changing tide for humanity becomes a central theme as Ai notes the closure of borders and the erection of fences to keep refugees from safety. Human Flow visits nations such as Hungary, Paris, and Germany (Ai’s own adopted home) to show varying degrees of conservatism and NIMBYism. The sparks of conservatism and right-wing politics erupting around the globe shift balances of power and leave the lives of millions of refugees in limbo worldwide.

Ai’s travels take him to different corners of the world including Palestine, Kenya, Mexico, Afghanistan, and Macedonia to witness the plights of diverse refugees. Scenes in Mosul, Iraq, are particularly troubling as Human Flow uses a filmmaker’s eye to capture the sky saturated in black clouds of smoke from the oil fields set aflame by ISIS. These sequences bring different stories of lives displaced by war, conflict, famine, drought, and poverty, among other variables, and the film considers the rights to life that all humans deserve yet rarely receive in refugee camps around the world.

The film pays particular attention to dynamics of rootlessness and dislocation as countries create barriers to restrict mobility. When one can’t stay in the country one calls home or find a new place to land, the anxiety of survival mode kicks in. Life goes on, however, and Ai’s travels include refugee camps so long established that they feature networks of commerce and infrastructure including markets, roadmaps, and sporting facilities.

Human Flow also calls attention to Ai’s role as a filmmaker. The doc features ample shots of the director interviewing the refugees or observing them respectfully with his camera. These shots initially resemble self-indulgent nods, but they gain significance when one appreciates Ai’s own refugee status. He trades his passport with a fellow refugee and jokes about letting him take his place in China or stay at his studio in Berlin. Ai has the freedom of mobility that few of the refugees in the film enjoy. Why can one person traverse so many borders and travel the globe while others wait in cramped camps in liminal states?

It’s all a question of power and control. Ai captures this dynamic in one of the few glimpses of humor that appears in the film. While in Mexico, filming at the US border where Trump threatens to build the infamous wall, a border patrol guard approaches the filmmakers and asks a few questions. He’s actually pretty cordial, but he points out that Ai’s filming in Trump’s America and asks if the director and his crew could scooch back a few feet across the desert. There’s nothing between Ai and the pole that marks the point at which Mexico ends and the USA begins. While there’s nothing physical within this space, the director encounters a perverse sense of entitlement and power that fuels the greater currents of migration worldwide.

Human Flow opens in Toronto Oct. 20 at TIFF Lightbox.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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