Human Flow (2017)

A Stunning Examination of the World’s Human Crisis

Director Ai Weiwei
Writers Chin-Chin Yap, Tim Finch, Boris Cheshirkov
Stars Israa Abboud, Hiba Abed, Rami Abu Sondos, Asmaa Al-Bahiyya, Eman Al-Masina
Rating PG-13
Running Time 2h 20m
Genre Documentary
IMBd link
Official Site

This is the most important movie you’ll see this year. It may also be one of the best you’ll see, as it is a documentary that is both insightful and informative, and beautiful and poignant. Artist and activist Ai Weiwei went to 23 countries over 1 year to document the plight of refugees around the world. The film successfully captures the enormity of the human migration crisis that includes 65 million people worldwide, while managing to convey the situation with personalized stories. Refugees by definition are those who have been forced to leave their country to escape war, persecution, famine and other natural disasters. For example, as pointed out in the film, Burma is pursuing ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims, according to a UN official. As a result, 500,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia. About 1.3 million Syrians have crossed into Jordan seeking shelter from the Syrian war. In a cry for help, African refugees say Syrians are not the only ones in need of help. More than 210,000 African refugees arrived in Italy since 2015. All of their epic journeys from one place to another, from countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, France, Greece, Germany, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, and Turkey is what makes “Human Flow.”

The film opens with migrants from Afghanistan making their way to Southern Greece on small boats. They are greeted by volunteers and coast guards who help them off their boats and to temporary safety. Ai is also there, with warm tea to hand out and a consoling presence. It is clear from the start, that this project is personal as well as professional. This group of migrants eventually make their way from one end of Greece to the Northern border, on foot. It is there that they expect to cross the European border, with hopes of accessing Germany since Angela Merkel has offered her country as a safe haven. When they arrive at the border, a fence has been put up and the gates are closed at the Greece/Turkey border. Although Germany is willing to take the migrants in, other European countries are unwilling to have them sojourn through their land. They are stuck for weeks on end without shelter, food and other necessities. “Migrant chaos mounts while a divided Europe stumbles for a response.” (New York Times)

Later, in a refugee camp elsewhere, a middle-aged father who has lost several family members in their flight from their country, recounts the horror of burying loved ones, and the guilt of surviving. He breaks down in tears when describing the attitudes of others towards displaced refugees. They are victims of disdain, considered less than. Like him, your heart breaks. You want to look away, but it is impossible. Mr. Ai has drawn you in with facts and figures, wide-sweeping shots of beautiful, yet harsh lands, lingering, unflinching close-up shots on refugee after refugee, heart-wrenching stories of love of country and family and loss, abject poverty, squaller, but on the other hand, hope, determination and the human spirit. The camera work is superb, with aerial and wide shots of both rugged topography and beautiful seas and skies.

Intermixed throughout the film are interviews with refugees, camp guards and politicians, including Dr. Dana Ashrawi, head of the PLO department of Culture and Information. Her pointed comments on the status of refugees capsulize their plight.

“Being a refugee is much more than just a political status. It is the most pervasive kind of cruelty that can be exercised against a human being by depriving the person of all forms of security.”

In “Human Flow” filmmaker, artist, activist, Ai has not only once again given us art to appreciate, but a shrinking world to think about. You may be tempted to avoid such bracing reality altogether or look away when confronted, but do not do so. Look, embrace, ponder and maybe even act upon what is presented.

Paula has worked as a journalist/producer for outlets such as CBS Radio, ABC Radio, and a film and theater reviewer for the Detroit Metro Times. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area working as a freelance journalist, website writer and documentary filmmaker.