Ai Weiwei is likely the most famous living artist. That’s thanks both to the products of his own restless imagination and the Chinese government’s harassment of him. In “Human Flow,” Ai puts to use both his keen eye and that fame.
Beautifully shot and deeply dispiriting, the documentary examines the global refugee crisis. Ai visits camps in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. He also goes to Gaza and the US-Mexico border. He’s the viewer’s surrogate: taking pictures, asking questions, helping out in small ways.
The presence of this roly-poly man with the scraggly beard and kind eyes gives a point of entry to situations of deprivation and despair that might otherwise overwhelm an audience. The film is all the more powerful for being so calm and unhurried. Ai doesn’t castigate or preach. He doesn’t have to. The facts, the images, speak for themselves. Instead, he bears witness.
We occasionally hear Ai speak, but there’s no voice-over. Interspersed with the footage of camps we get talking-head interviews both with refugees and humanitarian workers. Statistics and quotes intermittently appear, discreetly superimposed on the screen.
Every day an average of 34,000 people flee their country for political or economic reasons. Since 2003, there have been 4 million Iraqi refugees. The world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab, in Kenya, has housed as many as 500,000 people. That’s more than the population of Kansas City, Mo.
The quotes are mostly snatches of poetry. The most potent, at least for American viewers, comes from a US president, John F. Kennedy. “Every American who ever lived, with the exception of one group, was either an immigrant himself or a descendant of immigrants.”
Throughout the film there’s a striking visual tension between openness and confinement. Ai juxtaposes vast vistas — on the ocean, in the desert — with the camps and border barriers. He also loves overhead shots. “Human Flow” opens with a bird seen from far above, a gash of white over an impossibly blue ocean. Later, what looks like ants on a fence is revealed to be people on pavement. These are God’s-eye views. How will God judge us? Worse, how will our children?
Ai offers various small touches. The first thing seen when he visits Tempelhof, the former Berlin airport that’s now a refugee camp, is a US Air Force C-47. It’s a monument to the Berlin Airlift, a different sort of human flow. When some kids in a camp start mugging for the camera, he holds the shot. Any other director would cut away. The kids are getting in the way. They aren’t the point — except that they are.
Directed by Ai Weiwei. Written by Chin-Chin Yap, Tim Finch, and Boris Cheshirkov. At Kendall Square. 140 minutes. PG-13 (thematic material, including disturbing images). In multiple languages, though primarily English, with subtitles.
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