Film Review: HUMAN FLOW (Germany 2017) ***

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Human Flow Poster

Human Flow is director and artist, Ai Weiwei’s detailed and heartbreaking exploration into the global refugee crisis.


Ai Weiwei


Chinese artist Ai WeiWei’s ambitious film about refugees around the world has his clear impression stamp.  Ai was himself a political dissident in his own country, jailed for his openly anti-government and artistic displays (as observed in the documentary about himself – Alison Klayman’s AI WEI WEI – NEVER SORRY).

The film begins with the arrival of a boat full of refugees – a scene that is repeated at the end of the film, but then explained in greater and horrific detail.  HUMAN FLOW traces the plight of refugees, the most current being the Syrians, Afghanis and Iraqis as they escape war for a better life in any country they can find open to them.

HUMAN FLOW is unfortunately very long, close to two and a half hours and occasionally all over the place.  One particular example that stands out is the segment that comes out of the blue, of a tiger that is evacuated back to freedom in Africa.  (The tiger happened to escape through a tunnel just like a refugee.)

Ai’s artistry can be observed in many parts of his film.  The overhead shots of one of many makeshift refugee camps such as the back of trucks and the ending segment of colours are reminiscent of his art in his documentary, AI WEIWEI – NEVER SORRY.  His use of deafening silence is noticeable in the scene of a refugee boat sailing across the ocean as well as the devastating burning of the oil fields.  Ai is also fond of quoting poets of different nationalities as the refugees are (of different nationalities).

HUMAN FLOW could do with a tighter narrative with a head and conclusion.  Ai does also touch the topic of returning refugees.  He opens ones eyes to the problem of internal displacement – when refugees return home after too long a period and find that things have changed too much against them.  They no longer own their lands or know the people they once knew.

Refugees suffer a lot during their travels, often contacting diseases and undergoing sub-human living conditions.  Ai does not show these sufferings visually but they are described in voiceover or by the people interviewed verbally.  They are just as horrifying.  The people in the packed boats arrive, with diarrhoea, and scurvy (lack of Vitamin C).  Among them are children, babies and expecting women.

On the film’s more positive side, Ai includes interviews of people that work to help the refugees.  The Princess of Jordan talks candidly of human beings needing to do their part.  HUMAN FLOW also shows how certain countries like Germany and Sweden have done their part while others have not.

I remember a few months back when a friend asked my advice if he should take a refugee Syrian family to his home for a few months.  His wife was unsure of the kindness but I advised him against it as to be fair to his wife and not put his family at possible risk.  After seeing HUMAN FLOW, I regretted my advice.  Though Ai’s film is by no means perfect, it accomplishes its aim to make a difference.  If one cannot sacrifice a little for a suffering fellow human being, then, what are we?


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