Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei takes a powerful look at the global refugee crisis in his new documentary Human Flow. Whether the refugees come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, or sub-Saharan Africa, Ai pulls back to examine their crises in the broadest possible context, recognizing the enormity of the problem while still managing to bear witness to the human toll of an era in which thousands are fleeing war and atrocity only to be turned away and demonized by people who will never experience suffering on their level. It’s a delicate balance, but Human Flow succeeds where films like Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea faltered by demonstrating the true scale of this issue without losing its personal focus. On-screen tickers display headlines like a 24-hour news network, as if we’re watching it all unfold in real time, making for a unique juxtaposition between the refugee experience and the lens through which that experience is viewed by the rest of the world.
Human Flow succeeds where films like Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea faltered by demonstrating the true scale of this issue without losing its personal focus.
Most importantly, Human Flow is a film of profound empathy: Ai is nothing if not a citizen of the world, and his goal here is to understand an experience of broken humanity on a scale never before seen in human history — and to bring that understanding to his audience. His film is raw, clear-eyed, but at the same time gently surreal, and ultimately hopeful; it offers a vision for a global community based on mutual respect that may seem like a pipe dream in today’s increasingly polarized climate. Ai’s document of suffering and displacement still allows for tales of courage and resilience, even in the darkest places, arriving at an almost instinctual balance of macro and micro perspectives that forms an experience both epic and intimate. Human Flow masterfully takes a crisis that can often feel largely remote, and produces something palpably immediate that no one should ignore.