Director: Ai Weiwei
MPAA Rating: (for thematic material including a disturbing image)
Running Time: 2:20
Release Date: 10/20/17 (limited); 11/3/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 2, 2017
Sometimes the universe provides a perfect metaphor. It did while the Chinese artist, activist, and erstwhile political prisoner Ai Weiwei was making Human Flow. The metaphor arrives in the form of a tiger, which has traveled through some tunnels, apparently from Egypt, into Gaza, where over a million Palestinian refugees live after being displaced by wars in 1948 and 1965. The tiger has been locked in a small space, and after some discussion, a coalition of four countries has come together to transport it safely from Gaza to South Africa, where the wild animal can live freely again.
This moment comes fairly late in Ai's film, in which the filmmaker and his minimal crew travel around the globe to meet refugees and to see firsthand the conditions in which they live. We have seen people starving. We have seen sick children, who have little to no access to medical care, suffering. We have seen life preservers float toward the coast of Greece—their former wearers apparently having drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. We have seen a terrorist organization travel freely through one camp—its members armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades—announcing that this area is now under their control.
We have seen all of this and more, and we've also seen countries seal up their borders, prohibiting the travel of Syrian refugees from Greece, which cannot or will not provide asylum for them, through Macedonia. They must travel that way in order to arrive in Germany, where that country's chancellor has announced that refugees are welcome.
This is the moral crisis of our time—millions of people, from Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan and across Africa, displaced from their homes due to conflict or the devastating results of climate change. It is, according to statistics that are scattered throughout the film, the largest population of refugees since World War II. It has resulted in a political debate that has given rise to a sinister brand of nationalism, in which the color of a person's skin, someone's religious beliefs, and a person's country of origin constitute the primary factors under which people of a certain political stripe simply can dismiss those people.
After all, they could be terrorists. They could be susceptible to radicalization within a host country. They could change the demographics of a host country or use up resources that could be better allocated to the citizens of that country. Only a few say what they really mean by these arguments: that the lives of these refugees, suffering through near-unlivable conditions, are unimportant, because their skin is of a certain hue or they adhere to a certain faith. All members of this political ilk imply that thinking, though, whether they intend to do so or not.
Then, out of all of the suffering and debating, comes this moment of absurdity involving the stray tiger. Ai doesn't sell the point, because he knows he doesn't need to do so, but it speaks loudly and clearly.
Four countries—some of which are antagonistic toward each other in almost every conceivable way—come together to save the life of this animal, which, through no fault of its own, has found itself in near-unlivable conditions, without a home and with little chance of living a productive life in the Gaza Strip. We could laugh at the irony, if it weren't so obvious. Here is an example of what nations can do for good—to save a life that is worth something and could amount to something, if given the opportunity. They can make the effort for a tiger. The refugees—in Gaza and in Greece and in France and in all of the other places where Ai visits throughout the course of the film—are a different matter, it seems.
The film's central argument is that our priorities are completely out-of-whack. We have lost our shared sense of humanity, which helped to create the UN's Refugee Convention of 1951—after seeing the cost of ignoring the plight of refugees before and during World War II.
Ai's goal with the film is simple yet profound, and his method of accomplishing that goal is straightforward but elaborate. He wants to highlight the basic humanity of these refugees and, by extension, to force us to them in that light. Ai's approach is to travel the globe—from Gaza to Greece, from Afghanistan to Iraq, from France to the United States.
On his trips, he stays with the refugees, and most of the film is simply watching these people as they cope with the sense of not belonging anywhere, while still trying to maintain a basic standard of living. Some themes and repeated imagery emerge. There are camps—always camps—of various sizes and in various conditions. The official ones, such as in Jordan, are relatively clean, and one even has a soccer field, clearly new and in pristine condition. The unofficial ones, such as one outside a village along some train tracks on the Greek-Macedonian border, are made up of small tents, where people have to scavenge for food from nearby garbage bins.
The kids are always fascinating by the Ai and his crew members' cameras—always smiling at, waving to, or showing off for them. We learn that the overwhelming majority of these children do not go to school, and later, an expert (one of several whose commentary is interspersed throughout the film in such a way that it works as emphasis to what we see, instead of taking over the point) points out that entire generations of children in certain places are now more susceptible to the radicalization that concerns so many of that nationalistic bent. Those people, who would deny these refugees a chance of living, do not have a voice here. That's the correct choice, because these images are enough to show us the consequences of that political thinking.
There is one word that keeps returning in Human Flow: respect. That is what's missing in this situation. In a film filled with heartbreaking images, one stands out: a young man, trying to hide his tears behind a sign upon which he has written that single word. He's crying for the state of his life, but he might as well be crying for the state of a humanity that allows this to happen.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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