Ai Wei Wei's Human Flow: An artist's vision, an activist's plea

By Liam Lacey


Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei’s  Human Flow, a documentary on refugee populations around the globe, is an aerial view of a vast subject.  Shot in more than 20 countrieswith a 140-minute running time, the film is a random survey of the estimated 65-million people (roughly the populations of France or the U.K.), displaced from their homelands.

As well as directing and occasionally manning the camera, Ai takes the role of host here, interviewing refugees in English, talking to Princess Dana Firas of Jordan, and greeting people as they step off the boats onto the Greek shore, sharing a meal or getting a haircut in a camp.

The artist on the coast of Lesvos, Greece, where refugees routinely float ashore

The artist on the coast of Lesvos, Greece, where refugees routinely float ashore

A list of talking head experts from the United Nations and other groups, provides commentary, while an onscreen crawl runs fragments of poetry and headlines from New York Times, CNN and news outlets around the world. 

Although made with 25 crews and a dozen different directors of photography, the film still bears the mark of the artist. In particular, we see Ai’s interest with issues of trauma and abstract pattern: Repeated drone shots to show abstract patterns of refugee camps, colourful piles of lifejackets on a Greek shore, or refugees in Mylar thermal blankets, like a flock of glittering butterflies

Ultimately, though, Human Flow is more an activist’s than an artist’s film, a plea for international co-operation as countries are retreating behind border walls and fences (and, in the case of the European Union, paying Turkey to keep thousands of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq in camps).  

Politically-savvy viewers may reasonably object that there is more breadth than depth here, in a film that hopscotches around the planet linking people in different circumstances in Turkey, Jordan, Germany, Gaza, Kenya, Sudan and the U.S.-Mexican southern border. But Ai's emphasis is on similarities rather than differences.

A last word comes from Muhammed Faris, a once-celebrated Syrian astronaut (for the Soviet space program in the eighties) who is now living in a Turkish refugee camp. He talks about how the world from space appears as one the home of one people.

This may sound like a platitude, but the specific details bear it out: The demand for respect, the grief of survivors, the boredom of children, even the boys, dressed in the universal costume of sneakers, jeans and sports jerseys, confirm how much we have in common.

Human Flow. Directed by Ai Wei Wei.  At the TIFF Bell Lightbox.