Whatever opinion you hold about Ai Weiwei, there’s no denying the art world superstar’s ability to make impassioned political statements in a succinct, attention-grabbing style. Take his recreation of the harrowing photo of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, perhaps the most horribly iconic image to have emerged from the international migrant crisis. The sight of the artist playing dead on a Lesbos beach neatly encapsulates both the senselessness and absurdity of the broader situation, whilst also raising provocative questions about how we attach relative value to human life.
But as with much of Ai Weiwei’s work, the Lesbos stunt proved wildly divisive, with critics accusing him of crass narcissism. In recent years, China’s most famous dissident seems to have been revelling in his celebrity status, frequently placing himself at the centre of his art. Even his most widely celebrated pieces of late tend to be blunt and reactionary rather than measured and probing. Thus, eyebrows in some quarters were raised when it was announced that Ai’s next refugee project would take the form of a globe-hopping, 140-minute documentary. Would the restless provocateur really have the patience for long-form narrative filmmaking? And is such an overwhelmingly complex geopolitical issue really a suitable topic for a debut feature?
At first glance, “Human Flow” appears to offer Ai’s detractors plenty of ammunition. The director makes multiple appearances in front of the camera, handing out drinks to fresh-off-the-boat refugees, and cheerfully cooking for & conversing with camp residents. It’s initially hard to discern what purpose the footage serves, other than to remind us what a stand-up guy he is. More aggravatingly, these scenes are presented without any real context, as if the viewer is expected to instantly recognise the artist and possess knowledge of his background. While Ai’s cheerful visage may be iconic in certain rarefied circles, his mere presence is unlikely to mean much to casual viewers stumbling across “Human Flow” on VOD in the coming months (the film has been acquired by Amazon in the US).
As the film progresses, however, it becomes apparent that Ai’s cameos are anything but self-aggrandising. In one pivotal scene, he jokes around with a young Syrian man, suggesting they should swap passports. The boy runs with the idea, and proposes that they also exchange homes. Ai responds with awkward laughter, knowing full well that’s never going to happen, and plainly embarrassed that the limits of his compassion have been exposed. In an interview with The Guardian, he admitted that it’s an interaction “that’s going to haunt me for the rest of my life”. As if to atone for the encounter, he recently announced that he’ll be donating any personal profit from the film to refugee NGOs. The message is loud and clear: if you’re inclined to dismiss Ai’s activism as self-serving or insincere, you must at least acknowledge his capacity for self-criticism, and perhaps consider your own efforts to stand up and make a difference.
Setting aside the issue of intent, the film’s structure may have you doubting Ai’s storytelling skills. Early on, he makes a stop in Bangladesh to speak to members of the Muslim Rohingya community fleeing horrendous treatment in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. It’s a dire situation that’s only recently begun to receive the international attention it warrants, and one that offers a provocative rebuttal to the notion of Buddhism as the most tolerant of faiths. But rather than seriously interrogate this thorny issue, we’re offered a frustratingly succinct overview of the conflict, and then it’s straight on to the next scenario. As we flit around the globe, seemingly at random, from one truncated account of atrocity to another, the film begins to feel like a superficial overview — “Refugees for Dummies”, as a less-than-glowing Variety review dubbed it. Certainly, it’s hard to shake the suspicion that Ai is unable to offer answers to any of the questions his odyssey raises.
However, it becomes apparent that Ai is less interested in crafting a conventional narrative documentary — and given the vast and complex nature of the subject, a tidy narrative would almost certainly do a disservice to those affected by the crisis. Moreso, Ai seems interested in composing a tone poem that forces the viewer into a state of rueful contemplation. The artist seems to have realised that harrowing iconography like the Kurdi picture has done little to effect meaningful change. If anything, such imagery perhaps proves detrimental to the cause, allowing the viewer to conceive of the crisis as an abstract horror, a series of discomfiting signifiers, rather than something directly relatable. Here, by stripping away much of the context that allows us to rationalise and politicise migration, Ai instead vividly evokes a sense of everyday life as a refugee. Once the blunt trauma of fleeing your home country begins to subside, a more mundanely grim reality takes shape, one characterised by uncertainty, alienation, and spirit-crushing boredom. As disparate individuals from all over the globe share strikingly similar stories of everyday injustices and debasement, the mind-boggling scope and scale of the crisis begins to feel tangible.
This notion of breaking the broader picture down into comprehensible chunks is accentuated by exquisite drone photography. Cameras hover miles above sprawling refugee camps, before swooping down to gradually reveal indistinct dots and blurs as endless rows of tents, or overwhelming hordes of people. As a purely visual experience, there are moments here to rival the sweep and spectacle of “Dunkirk” or “Blade Runner 2049”. The ubiquity of streaming services is rapidly hastening the demise of documentary as a cinematic experience, but this is a rare non-fiction film that begs to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
Though the substance of “Human Flow” is no laughing matter, Ai alleviates the solemnity with moments of sly, subversive humour. As he roams around Berlin’s disused Tempelhof airport, today Germany’s largest refugee shelter, he seems to be positioning the camp as a model to which the rest of the western world should aspire, with enthusiastic camp workers insistent that they’ve created a happy, home-away-from-home atmosphere for their residents. But their assertions are swiftly undercut by subsequent testimony from children living in the camp, who matter-of-factly describe their new existence as intolerably tedious. It’s a delightfully droll moment, which shines a light on the prejudices about earnest do-gooders that many of us secretly harbour. And once the smirks subside, an altogether bleaker realisation dawns – if even those devoting their lives to making refugees’ lives tolerable are failing hopelessly, this is a crisis we’re a long way from beginning to solve.
While the overall tone may be anxious and angry, it’s not quite despairing. By sidelining politics and honing in on the everyday, Ai reframes the crisis in refreshingly straightforward terms. The film leaves you with a vivid sense of millions of people living horribly compromised lives, but also of the many millions more who have the means to reach out and help them. Without resorting to shaming tactics, Ai Weiwei invites his privileged viewers to join him in standing alongside refugees, in a manner that demands at least a modicum of soul-searching. In this regard at least, “Human Flow” is his most effective fusion of art and activism to date.