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Human Flow Tries to Capture the Magnitude of the Migrant Crisis

Ai Weiwei's new documentary took two years and more than 200 people to make. Can it capture the plight of millions of refugees?

Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Human Flow, the first feature-length documentary by famed artist Ai Weiwei, is best when it makes portraits. In one of the first scenes, Ai approaches Muhammed Hassan, a Syrian man who has just arrived ashore on the way to Salah ad-Din, a refugee camp in Iraq. Hassan accepts a cup of tea from Ai, then sits down and takes a long drag of his cigarette. He stares, unblinking, into the camera’s eye. His expression shifts from exhaustion, to determination, to uncertainty.

Released earlier this month, Human Flow is an unusual look at the global migrant crisis. It oscillates between large and small—aerial footage is paired with close-ups, statistics with personal stories—in order to convey not only the vast scale of what Ai calls a “human crisis,” but also to reach the individuals and their communities who have undergone, are undergoing, it. The film acts both as a monument to those who have experienced the ordeals of forced migration and as a call to action to those who haven’t.

The aftershocks of displacement and violence—survivor’s guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder, generational trauma—unfurl candidly in interviews with refugees. At the same time, the audience witnesses the human care and resilience of migrants in ordinary intimacies. Near the dock at Lesbos, a mother pulls a shoe onto her son’s foot. In darkness, a man comforts his older brother. And at the center of one frame is a young Afghan boy, decorated with balloon animals, struggling to sit still. On either side, his grandmother and mother are processing news that the Greek-Macedonian border may close—later in the film, there will be footage of refugees fleeing from tear gas at that very border. But in this moment, the mother periodically turns to the boy and quips, “Are you sleepy?” and “Don’t poke me in the eye!” Such moments are what gives this film its almost unbearable power. Juxtaposed with the realities of displacement—war, structural negligence, and systemic abuse across generations—Ai’s patient observation of the everyday becomes a political act.

This lyrical approach, however, becomes tedious under the sheer length of the film. Poignant vignettes and interviews are swamped by long shots of the Mediterranean and of migrants trekking into the forests of northern Greece. Viewers can begin to despair of ever getting anywhere. That might be the point. Ai justifies these choices in an interview with The Atlantic, saying that his film is meant to add to the already hyper-abundant imagery from the crisis. And while Human Flow lacks a perceivable structure or narrative, this gesture has a political purpose in a time of pervasive factual distortion and bad information. As a film, it does not feel like a piece of propaganda, but rather of a work of frank observation, and this makes it unique among treatments of the migrant crisis. In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi has called reports of massacres of Rohingya Muslims “fake news.” In the United States, far-right media has capitalized on racial anxiety through actual fake news about Syrian refugees. Ai’s brand of discursive “storytelling,” then, becomes an aesthetic act of resistance for those escaping violence, oppression, and economic strain. It is a more honest way of telling their stories.

That said, Ai’s film becomes more digressive than discursive. Rather than contending with the information saturation around the crisis, Human Flow falls prey to it. Footage is layered without clear logic, poetic or narrative. If it weren’t for the informational text on the screen, we would lose track of where we are. Human Flow is the result of Ai’s travels across 23 countries, assisted by more than 200 crew members over the course of two years, and at times it feels like it is overwhelmed by its own ambition. The film is a missed opportunity to deliver a cohesive depiction of what is otherwise a focused humanitarian message.

Human Flow is a personal project to Ai, who is the son of exiled poet Ai Qing, and who grew up experiencing humiliation and physical torment during China’s Cultural Revolution. Later in his life, Ai was beaten and detained by the Chinese government for his political activism. His passport was revoked, then suddenly reinstated years later. Such is Ai’s point of connection in Human Flow, rendered as his respectful, sometimes awkward vantage point in his interactions with migrants. In one scene, he jokingly exchanges passports with a Syrian man. In another, he gingerly cuts a man’s hair at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The film is one of several projects that Ai has been working on regarding the global refugee crisis, including the ongoing Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, his collection of site-specific installations in New York City, and his 2016 installation consisting of 14,000 life jackets wrapping Berlin’s Konzerthaus venue. The most controversial of Ai’s explorations of the crisis has been his 2016 photograph, which restaged a widely circulated picture of three-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi washed ashore on a Turkish beach. If Ai is, as he told Slate, merely “one individual who is quite naïve and trying to interpret the situation, meeting people and shooting images,” this last photograph is most emblematic of just how blunt these attempts can be.

For better or for worse, his attitude—approaching the crisis as a curious amateur at worst, or an invested citizen at best—is the basis for the film. Working in a volatile space of easily distorted or suppressed information, Ai’s purpose, in the end, is to document the experiences of refugees—candidly and compassionately, patiently and obsessively. He does not interrogate the ongoing causes of the crisis in Human Flow as explicitly as he has in other political works, such as his 2008 artistic and documentarian project Citizens’ Investigation. But these factors are ever present in the film: the closure of crossing points along the Syrian-Jordanian border; the ruins of homes in Turkey in the ongoing Kurdish–Turkish conflict, plumes of black smoke rising from the oil fields of ISIS-occupied Mosul. The politicians responsible are never named, but inevitably invoked and implicated, from the U.S.–Mexico border to the Israeli West Bank Barrier Wall.

A penultimate scene in Human Flow features the former Syrian astronaut Mohammad Fares, who describes seeing the earth from space. “Sadly there are evil people on Earth,” Fares says. Let’s send them to space.” What could Fares mean here? To launch “evil people” into space—literally out of planet Earth’s frame in a dual act of revenge and pedagogy? Perhaps the exiled villains will at last see, as Fares saw, that “each human is a universe.”

As Ai said, “The solution is in everyone of us. If we feel that one is connected to another ... then we have the solution. If we ... talk about geo-politics, legislation, technical problems, then we miss the point.” Perhaps what he means is that, even as this colossal film brings us to the very limits of looking, look we must—not for the sake of voyeurism, but to glean space to take action.