No matter how much you think you know about refugees, no matter whether or not every time you hear about refugees you think, “It’s not my problem,”or “Not again, it’s boring”, the documentary Human Flow, by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident artist and activist, comes as a shock.
The reason is, Ai Weiwei focuses on the magnitude of the refugee problem in the world. He stresses this point using different tactics. There are aerial shots of refugee camps, in which people initially look like ants crawling in the desert, or on a white brick wall. Only after zooming in, they turn out to be children playing in a refugee camp in a desert, or people walking in a refugee tent settlement in Turkey.
He shows refugees arriving in packed boats by sea, shivering from cold, walking long distances to get to borders that block them from entering, getting soaked in the rain, lining up for hours to get food, and living in squalid conditions in rat and insect infested tents with no hope for a better future.
He covers refugees and refugee camps in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan, Ghaza, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Germany, Hungary, France, U.S., Mexico, and sub-Saharan Africa. He has statistics and quotes from news articles like “There are 65 million refugees in the world,” “Some refugees remain in camps for decades, for up to four generations,” swimming across the screen. The numbers are so obscene that after a while they fail to register. 300,000 refugees here, 140,000 refugees there, and so on, and so on…
He often quotes poetry to lend poignancy to new scenes. People talk about the indignity of being a refugee, having lost their home, material possessions, family, friends, identity and dignity. Not only finding all doors closed with nobody caring or bothering to lend a helping hand, but even facing armed guards, tear gas, fire and barbed wire.
In contrast with the magnitude statistics and drone shots of huge landscapes, there are also some very personal scenes. In one close up scene two brothers are talking and crying in a tent in the dark, trying to reassure each other. In another, a desperate woman talks about being stuck in the camp with her young son. She’s got her back to the camera, and is so distraught that pauses and starts throwing up. In yet another, a man who looks crazy is walking agitatedly around some makeshift graves. Eventually he starts talking and crying, showing ID’s of his family members. Initially there were seventeen of them. Now there are twelve. Five perished and were buried near the sea by the refugee camp.
But the whole movie is not tragic. Ai Weiwei mixes in some happy scenes as well. He shows children playing, laughing and making faces, people posing and smiling for pictures, young girls talking about their dreams of travel and adventure. Heart-warming scenes like people being helped ashore from crammed boats, wrapped in blankets and given hot tea. Refugees boarding buses and taken to proper dwellings.
Then there are humorous scenes, with Ai Weiwei barbequing skewers of kebab in a refugee camp, or dancing with the locals at a feast. There’s one where he exchanges his Chinese passport with one of the many passports a refugee hoards in a Ziploc bag in his pocket. They joke and laugh and in the end he says, “I respect your passport and I respect you,” to which he gets a similar response. He seems quite at home among the refugees, spending time outdoors in the cold and fierce wind, offering sympathy and comfort when needed, sharing a joke and a laugh.
It’s no wonder. Ai Weiwei is a refugee himself. After being arrested, interrogated, beaten and incarcerated in his native China, he chose to leave, and take up residence in Berlin, Germany. Although he is an internationally renowned multidisciplinary artist, –he recently received a “Global Citizenship Award” from Adrian Clarkson—he doesn’t dare go back to China, because his life might still be in danger.
Another way he stresses the immensity of the plight of 65 million refugees is through symbolism and irony. After an interview with Palestinians complaining that the Ghaza strip is like a prison, a tiger is shown, which somehow escaped from Egypt through the secret underground tunnel and ended up in Ghaza. The tiger is angrily circling the small pit that he’s put in. A vet complains in an interview that the pit is no place for a tiger. He’s away from his habitat, with no grass under his paws, no opportunity to hunt, etc. etc. Letters are written, a huge effort is made, and finally the tiger is transported to a more friendly environment. Cut to a scene, where a multitude of people, Ai Weiwei among them, are jubilantly dancing on the street. The tiger was the lucky one.
The Palestinians still remain blockaded in their densely populated pit.
He also takes a few political jabs. While poor countries like Jordan and Lebanon take in countless refugees without closing their borders, rich countries like Germany, Hungary and the U.S. don’t let them in. The EU gave Turkey 6 billion Euros and visa-free travel privileges in return for Turkey to keep all the refugees who what to go to Europe through its land. Turkey, in turn, only spends a fraction of that money on the refugees, with many of them left to fend for themselves with no government support. France, in its turn, set fire to a refugee camp in Calais, forcing the inhabitants to flee. The US has a now famous partial wall on its southern border with Mexico, with border guards patrolling it. The majority of the millions of refugees are fleeing war and political oppression: manmade problems.
Human Flow is a beautifully shot, painful and shocking movie. It jolts us out of our complacency, and drives home the point that we are facing in Ai Weiwei’s own words, “…a human crisis.” And as human beings, every one of us needs to do something to solve it.