Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow: To be a Refugee for 145 minutes

Was it coincidence or destiny when Ai Weiwei couldn’t attend the screening of his film Human Flow at the Hammer Museum in early January due to the cancellation of all flights out of New York? Either way, the artist’s absence immediately sensitized his guests to the misery of being stuck somewhere. Now imagine being trapped in a place for up to 26 years and your stomach keeps growling, your clothes are filthy and wet, and the only entertainment you have are the constant electricity outages, the snakes inside your tent and the tear gas being sprayed on you where you had believed you’d be free and safe. All that after a strenuous trip, during which you witnessed women being raped and fellow refugees drowning. This is a summary of the stories being told in Ai Weiwei’s 145-minute documentary about the refugee crisis, thus the 65.6 million displaced people around the world. His film was shot in 23 countries, including Afghanistan, Germany, Greece, France, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Macedonia and Pakistan.

The Chinese-born, Berlin-based artist/filmmaker, a displaced person himself during the Cultural Revolution and a detainee in 2011 due to his outspokenness against the communist regime, introduces the subject matter in a gentle way. In fact, while Human Flow is a documentary, it includes several scenes that could easily be construed as part of a fictional feature film.



Human Flow opens with the stunning scene of a white seagull flying gracefully above a dark blue ocean, perhaps the Aegean Sea, shot from an elevated view, accompanied by haunting music by composer Karsten Fundal. There are more cinematic moments throughout: as when a group of African refugees wrapped in silver-golden rescue blankets shimmer at night like a crackling fire, or the stunning shot of horses bathing in the turquoise blue ocean at Gaza beach. Not only pure aesthetics capture the viewer’s attention, however. We are captivated by the combination of reportage, poetry, oral history and interview, contrasted against close-ups of silent refugees and recurrent scenes of wind. The film’s pace is perfect. The viewer never has to endure a situation for too long; intense and painful scenes are repeatedly replaced by enchanting and humorous ones. The mise-en-scène is thus varied yet balanced, due to Weiwei’s masterful directorial style and skillful editing by Niels Pagh Andersen.

Another strength of the film, which more than 200 people worked on, is that it puts a face to refugees and humanizes “the other” in the style of immigrant and Holocaust movies. Thus, the refugees in the film are presented while dressing their children, cooking and sharing images on their cell phones. The multiple scenes of gap-toothed children smiling into the camera, symbols of innocence, remind us that, had we been born at the wrong place and wrong time, we’d be the refugees.

Human Flow is a beautifully conceived film with a powerful message: Respect is important. The only minor flaws occur in moments of slight confusion as to geographic location, and when certain staged scenes clash with the naturalness portrayed in the rest of the film. Ai Weiwei was harshly criticized by the international press at the Venice International Film Festival and the German news magazine Der Spiegel for his noticeable presence throughout the film. However, his appearance in front of the camera proves necessary. He demonstrates how we can reduce the suffering in the lives of refugees by understanding and being kind to them. His installation Law of Journey, to be featured at the 21st Biennale of Sydney, is another effort to achieve that goal.

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Simone Kussatz is a cultural journalist and American Studies Specialist (M.A.). Born and raised in Germany, she studied in the US and Berlin. She’s been a regular contributor to Art Ltd. and ArtScene.

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