It is no surprise that Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous activist and contemporary artist, chose to call his latest film Human Flow. It is a film about one of the biggest humanitarian crises in recent decades: a flood of unwanted refugees gushing out en masse, fleeing unimaginable hardships to seek a better life, but often coming up against barbed wire fences, armed soldiers and terrible, unforgiving seas. Ai Weiwei chose this title because this film is his declaration to us:
They are human.
They are us.
Do not look away.
Human Flow is highly symbolic. The first image we see is an expanse of blue ocean, stretched out like a great canvas; upon it flies a bird, drifting towards more hospitable, drier land. The bird becomes a boat full of people, who, as Ai Weiwei seems to be saying, is also like the bird. They, too, are roaming. Searching. Five minutes later, I already felt like crying.
I had never seen anything like this before, and most probably, neither will you have. Images of a little boy in a red coat washed up on Turkey’s shores; tired, angry faces behind a prison camp on Nauru; and election ads for Tony Abbott’s campaign back in 2013, the words “turn back the boats”, splashed across his posters—these were things that I had seen. It was but a glimpse compared to the open book that Ai Weiwei has laid at our feet by making this film. Every image, every shot, is carefully drawn out, slow, and precise; we are being made to see, not just look. The refugees are made to stand against a white tent, as if having their portrait taken. Mothers, children, men, the elderly; it is like looking into a mirror.
Finally, I think to myself, finally, we are seeing the humanitarian side of this story. For far too long, and far too often, have these people been judged, called illegals, or “boat people”, and been dismissively turned away by our politicians, the media, and ourselves. Now, instead, we see another face to this many-sided reality. The eyes of shocked, small children stare out at the camera. They don’t understand where they are or what is happening. Ai Weiwei reminds us not to pity these people, but to empathise with them—to see ourselves in them. While the film also uses statistics and newspaper quotes surrounding the refugee crisis, it is the faces of the children that are the most profound and affecting.
Both the small movements (here, an old woman hobbling slowly across a barren landscape) and the big movements (there, thousands of people walking across Europe as one) are captured beautifully. The bustle of camp life is held in stark contrast with the pervading, deafening silences that come with being truly alone. Although I felt like crying in the beginning, this film isn’t gory, or sickening; every frame will make you realise that that person could be me, or that child could be mine.
Ai Weiwei has clearly perfected his craft of activism and art, and is pushing at the borders (pun intended) of traditional documentary-making and filmmaking. We are welcomed into the era of mobile-phone footage as the director almost floats around, rarely filmed, almost always silent, ethereal-like, with his smart phone glued to his hand. The stunning, crystal-clear drone footage captures the enormity of the camps and the task at hand, as well as the bustling life of the thousands that reside there.
This wasn’t so much a story, as it was a looking-glass, and those who came had the privilege to look through it. This film allowed us to follow the struggle, and the endurance necessary for this, of refugees around the world. Each person has an individual story, and yet there is one common denominator: they have all lost their dignity, their power, and their access to a secure and happy life. There is no sweeping orchestral music, no great climax; just reality—or, as close as we can get to it.
Yet, I must contradict myself; I know that behind every camera is a person, a perspective, and a reason for making a film. There is bias. My one criticism of the film would be the transparency of bias towards the refugees in this film; despite my absolute support for his cause, I yearned for a more objective approach and a balanced perspective. What about the people whose countries have taken in thousands, millions, of refugees? Where is their voice? Where is the opposing, lamenting shout? I felt that if Ai Weiwei could have shown their concerns, and then presented the struggles of the refugees, this film would have been ten times more powerful for it. But I succumb to my initial instinct.
As journalist Edward R. Murrow once said, “Anyone who believes that every individual film must represent a ‘balanced’ picture knows nothing about balance or pictures.” So, there can be no doubt in my mind, that Human Flow does what it set out to do, with or without balance: it evokes, it raises questions, and it challenges your very understanding of reality. It is truly a must-see masterpiece.
Human Flow is in Perth cinemas March 15.
Images sourced from filmmakermagazine.com and watershed.co.uk.