Human Flow: The big and small of the refuge crisis

A Documentary
Directed by Ai Weiwei

If you keep up with international news to any serious degree, very few of the facts in this haunting documentary will surprise you (although some just might). But director Ai Weiwei isn’t really trying to make you know more. He wants to make you feel more.

But I’ll start you with a few facts, anyway. The world we live in is flooded with refugees – more than any since World War II (ironically, this time many of the refugees are trying to get into Europe). Most are fleeing war, but not all. Some flee religious or ethnic oppression. Or simple poverty. And yet others are fleeing drought and other effects of climate change. That last group is likely to increase over the next decades.

Human Flow introduces you to a cross section of these refugees – coming out of and into some 23 countries. They travel in overcrowded boats, wait in overcrowded camps, and hope they will find a place to live. We see the squalor they’re forced to live in, along with their fear and frustration. But we also see them joke and laugh and play with their children.

Weiwei is not in a hurry. Human Flow runs 140 minutes, and despite the slow pacing, never gets boring. It’s a big subject and one that takes time to absorb.

Following the cinema verite tradition, Human Flow has no spoken narration. It contains many interviews with people involved with the crisis, such as Human Rights Watch’s Peter Bouckaert. Weiwei provides other direct information through occasional, terse text on the screen. This on-screen text includes quick facts, quotes from news sources, and even poetry.

I came into the movie at least slightly aware of most of these refugee-generating disasters. But Pakistan’s behavior caught me off guard. The government is trying to move its Afghani refugees back to Afghanistan. Some of these people have lived in Pakistan for almost 40 years. By any reasonable metric, they’re Pakistani – but they’re being thrown out of the country.

Director Ai Weiwei puts himself into the movie quite a bit, and not always to the film’s benefit. He’s useful on screen when he’s talking to refugees or the people trying to help them. And occasionally he shows us how the movie is being made. But do we really need to see the director cooking?

This just may be the most technically impressive verite documentary yet made. Today’s digital cameras are light, small, and provide beautiful and detailed images. Weiwei makes full use of drones for spectacular aerial photography.

Weiwei has something important to tell us about human life and dignity, and how societies can crush both. He powerfully makes his point.

The movie opens Friday.