As members of our own civilised society, we should all be somehow well-acquainted with the world in conflict. As viewers and listeners able to freely select what we see and hear, we learn of this conflict by our own volition. In making a conscious decision to see Human Flow, we agree to experience some of the relentless realism of global conflict as a 140-minute-long documented journey.
Ai Weiwei has an extraordinary life story to tell. Human Flow is not, however, about its director. The film’s focus is upon the people caught up in such conflict, necessarily migrating from country to country, camp to camp, border to border and sea to sea – exhausted, numbed and distraught, if they manage to stay alive.
Ai Weiwei mixes the global scope imagery of Human Flow with overlaid philosophical quotes, migration and refugee statistics, international news feature sound bites and examples of definitions used to describe people who flee from deadly conflict. He also edits in pieces of constructivist imagery and reportage which help to relieve the senses and stimulate rational thought.
Human Flow reminds us that the UN Refugee Convention 1951 definition of ‘refugee’ was born in Europe in response to World War Two displacements and that the presently vaster migrant volumes and expanse they traverse renders traditionalised humanitarian responses to be harder to implement for many reasons. In revealing situations where not all migrants could possibly be aware of border closures and that active arrest and bombing policies consequently caused deeper grief and hardships for many already traumatised refugees, it further educates.
Statistics are not simply quoted in the film, as it strives to demonstrate the sheer vastness of scale of relatively present-day migrant crises: e.g. 65m displaced globally, to date; 277,000 immigrants in Iraq, mainly from Syria; 1m in Greece, mainly from Syria; 13,000 waiting for the Greek-Macedonian border to open; 1.3m Syrians have crossed their country’s border with Jordan via 45 crossing points, 40 of which are currently closed; 75,000 Syrians trapped in Jordan’s border with Saudi Arabia; 500,000 Kurds displaced from Turkey as a result of bombings in 2015 alone; 10,000 in the now decommissioned Calais gateway ‘jungle camp’; Lebanon – 2m refugees from Palestine and Syria, where UNICEF state that 50% of the children are without schooling here; 4.7m refugees in Gaza – largest amount encamped at the Israeli wall border area and where 80% of the population rely on humanitarian aid to survive; and Afghan and Pakistan conflict refugees have existed in similarly ‘temporary’ accommodation for as long as over four decades.
Rare sight of the director himself beside migrants, buying fruit from a stall or getting his hair cut are prosaic enough. He also gets in front of the camera to help people from boats or to grab a bucket for a woman who cannot fully describe the horror which she has experienced without being violently sick. Recalling that Iraq oil fields were intentionally set on fire by ISIS during the country’s battle with Kurds in 2016, the absolute horror of this slaughter is represented through one of the film’s most distressing images being held steady – that of one young person whose body lies horrifically ravaged and isolated in the foreground. The film appears to challenge audiences to deeply consider rather than turn away from this or from images of young migrants breaking down in grief, some of them doing their best to hold up protest notices in hope of change.
Occasionally, constructively styled imagery comes into view. One migrant camp which gradually appears in shot from a great enough height to be initially perceived as an ant farm possibly represents an ironic take on the ‘swarm’ political description gaff.
As an activist who also achieved global fame for his 2008 Beijing Olympic Games Birds Nest Stadium design, Ai Weiwei spoke out both directly and artistically the same year, in response to the deaths of schoolchildren following the Sichuan earthquake. Commercially successful as an artist, he chose to protest against his home country’s Communist Government’s failings in building safe schools through his artistic displays of these deceased children’s backpacks. Ten years later, towards the closing stages of factual realism within Human Flow, an evocative image of hundreds of immigrants’ lifejackets appears to resonate with a complexly woven message.
Not so much didactic as exploratory, Human Flow is no more seamlessly portrayed than its subject matter – the true existence of such a vast number of people conveyed through its responsive adventure.
Jackie Bergson has worked in the voluntary sector and commercial business development in technology and creative sectors. Educated in and living in Glasgow, her political and social views chime left-of-centre.