Film Review: Human Flow (2017)
Review by Belle McIntyre
"It’s going to be a big challenge to recognize that the world is shrinking and people from different religions, different cultures, are going to have to learn to live with each other.” These words from the Chinese artist, activist, and director of this film express his motivation in making this film. This is a subject about which he feels passionately and which has inspired a large body of his artistic output in the last few years. The film is a vast sweeping overview of the refugee crisis in our world today and it is pretty overwhelming and difficult to comprehend in a manageable way for those of us who are far removed from it. But, obviously, that is the point. Oblivion is not an option.
The film, which took two years to make, and covers over 20 countries - including Greece, Turkey, Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico, Bangladesh, Algeria, Syria and Burma is audacious in its scope. The massiveness and scale of the upheaval is effectively filmed using drone sequences which often appear as glorious abstractions (think Edward Burtynsky) until the camera swoops down to reveal the reality and the details of the scene. What look like rivers are actually tides of humanity, carrying all of their worldly possessions, moving on foot. Grid patterns on the ground are revealed as acres of tents in refugee camps. We find ourselves in the midst of the refugees and the volunteers who work tirelessly and compassionately to try to help these people who have mostly thrown themselves on the mercy of strangers as their situations are so dire that they have no other options. It is heartbreaking and almost unimaginable. This film is immersive and not for the faint of heart.
There are some indelible images amongst the refugees in their habitats which illustrate both the challenges, the ingenuity, and the imagination of those who must re-make their entire lives out of nothing in unfamiliar, often hostile, environments. It is phenomenally inspiring to witness the will to survive against the most overwhelming odds. Equally inspiring is the care and commitment of the highly motivated aid workers who are trying to bring sustenance and comfort to the most dispossessed among us.
It makes perfect sense that the multi-disciplinary artist, Ai Weiwei, should find inspiration in the refugee situation - as a victim of totalitarian human rights violations against his own freedom. Based on his vocal criticism of China’s repressive practices he was incarcerated and banned from leaving China for four years. His work has always had major component of social or political comment or criticism. This is what inspires and moves him and his passionate focus on this enormous social drama is the source material which he so eloquently shares with us. It can be daunting.
Finally, as I write this piece, what I am struck by is the Darwinian adaptability of the human race. It raises the focus of the refugee situation above the political and the human rights aspects to a higher plane and a more enlightened point of view of an all-embracing vision of humanity. We are all on this planet together and compassion is the only appropriate response. His case is well made.