(Germany, 78 min.)
Dir. Ai Weiwei
Programme: Special Presentations (North American Premiere)
Ai Weiwei’s 2017 doc Human Flow is one of the most extraordinary portraits of the global migration crisis ever put on film. The globetrotting scale of the film captures the enormity of the problem at hand as Ai toured a whopping 23 countries to collect some of the stories of the 65 million refugees on the move worldwide. Cut to a few years later and the problem has worsened with nearly 70 million people seeking refuge with fewer options for new homelands as conservatism inspires nations to close their borders and stop accepting people in need.
Ai also closes inward with his latest study of migration, The Rest, which looks at the dilemma on a smaller scope with greater intimacy. It’s a trade off for the artist/activist, who somewhat repeats himself with a film that is not quite equal to its predecessor. (It could easily be comprised of footage excised from Human Flow.) It’s hard to dismiss The Rest as a lesser version of a film Ai made two years ago, though, since the crisis has only worsened since Human Flow debuted in 2017. The Rest is an undeniably urgent film.
There is a devastating moment in The Rest when Ai interviews a husband and wife who say their kids were better off in Syria than in the refugee camp where they wait in limbo. They question whether they did the right thing by escaping bombings and the violence of ISIS, and say to Ai that they might never have fled Syria had they known that the countries to which they turned for safety would be as hostile as ISIS insurgents. Equally powerful is a scene in which Ai visits protesters in the camps who have sewn their lips shut to convey how the voices of refugees are silent and absent from the debate. Painful moments like these two give The Rest its heft.
The Rest focuses on a handful of experiences in six refugee camps in France, Germany, Greece, and Italy. The stories are pretty dire and echo those of the Syrian parents. People speak of surviving horrible journeys across the Mediterranean Sea, often losing family members and friends in the process, and arriving in an environment where they’re less welcome than rats. Food scarcity, poor shelter (if any), and lack of access to water are just some of the problems. Far worse are the psychological ills inspired by the camps: the waiting, the rootlessness, and the anxiety of never knowing one’s fate.
Ai captures the brutality that exists beyond the fences that surround the camps. The cameras witness police officers dismantling tents and shelters, firing tear gas into crowds of refugees, and using threats of force to order caravans of asylum seekers to reverse their path to a border. Whether in the seaside resort town of Calais, France, or the muddy fields of Indomeni, Greece, just walking distance from the Macedonian border, or the Trumpianly fenced borders of Germany, The Rest conveys the hostile indifference of the world to its citizens in need. The rhetoric is hateful and the actions are violent: too often do the Europeans display the kind of hostility and barbarism with which they characterize the refugees.
Ai doesn’t propose a solution to this huge humanitarian crisis, nor can he, but he simply provides human faces who ask audiences to question the world’s indifference to people in need. When surviving the bombs of Homs are a better option than the muddy camps of Greece, any solution to the issue is far too complex for any one film or filmmaker to propose. The sense of hopelessness and helplessness by the end is frustrating, but fair.
The Rest screens:
-Sat, Apr. 27 at 12:45 p.m. at Isabel Bader
-Sun, May 5 at 9:30 p.m. at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Ai Weiwei will also offer an extended conversation at the Isabel Bader on Saturday, Apr. 27 at 10:30 a.m.
Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!