City Nomads’ Documentary of the Month: Human Flow

Have you heard of Ai Wei Wei, the internationally-renowned artist famous for his political works and, even more controversially, open criticism of the Chinese government? Because his latest project, ‘Human Flow’, is one you need to see.

The 140-minute long feature documentary, which debuted in November last year, centres around the escalating global refugee crisis that affects some 65 million people around the world. And I’m not just talking about those made homeless by the Syrian Civil War. In its essence, ‘Human Flow’ is an exhaustive tour of practically every refugee crisis currently happening in the world. Crossing oceans and passing through 23 countries in the span of a year, Ai travels to Myanmar, Gaza, Afghanistan, Greece, Iraq, and beyond to tell the stories of displaced communities, all the while carrying with him the characteristic Zen-like air of calm.

He makes his way to Kenya’s Dadaab, the largest such refugee camp in the world, to the Greek island of Lesbos, where half a million people landed just last year alone, and visits Turkey, where some three million are currently encamped and stranded. At one point, Ai travels with his crew to the Mexico–United States border, where he exchanges tense words with a patrolman. “We’re making a film.”

With more than 10 videographers and cinematographers on board, including Christopher Dolye (best known for his collaborations with celebrated Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai), ‘Human Flow’ is a visual delight that makes a spectacle of its vastness. Its drone shots are particular captivating, as you examine the colour of the land and people to grasp where you’re at any point. One minute, you are with a group of people, and the next minute, you are on another continent with another group. And it is perhaps this point that asserts the commonality between these migrants: once status, education, and privilege are shed, we are all the same.

At times, Ai is seen filming on his smartphone, and the pixelated footage we observe lends a sort of shaky proximity to the subjects. At Lesbos, where the film opens, he helps catch disorientated passengers as they climb off the boat. And it is this human flow that makes the documentary show captivating – scenes of refugees trudging onwards in streams towards some form of hope.

The documentary is not a comfortable one to watch. I would almost call it depressing, and it’s something viewers should be prepared to face. There are tense scenes: a teary Iraqi woman from Mosul talks about missles “falling like rain”, and later, a man standing in front of freshly dug graves counts off the identity card of family members who passed away – five out of 17. Ai also plays with silence a lot, letting actions do the talking. The most upsetting shot is one of a child’s mangled body lying in the sand, as migrants walk past helplessly.

As the credit rolls, we are not presented with answers – that is not what Ai Wei Wei is trying to accomplish. What he tried to, and succeeded in doing, is to put human faces on an issue that governments are trying to circumvent, compellingly showing that the proverbial Exodus is very real. Only this time, Moses is not there to part the Red Sea.

Watch ‘Human Flow‘ on iTunes and Amazon Video.

Deputy Editor

Gary is one of those proverbial jack of all trades… you know the rest. When not writing about lifestyle and culture, he dabbles in photography, graphic design, plays four instruments and is a professional wearer of bowties. His greatest weakness: spending more money on clothes than he probably should. Find him across the social world as @grimlay