Some time ago, Ai Weiwei’s fame eclipsed his art, so what he does with that fame really does matter. In his first feature-length documentary (he’s made video installations in the past), the Chinese dissident stamps the international refugee crisis with his imprimatur, lending his name to the cause in the hope of raising awareness of just how serious the calamity has become. This leads to several problems, not least of which is that if you need a celebrity to tell you there’s a crisis, you really haven’t been paying attention. Perhaps Ai knew that, because “Human Flow” is basically Refugees for Dummies, a primer on global displacement with theatrical releases all lined up and an Amazon deal that’s bound to see significantly more traffic than box office cash registers or, crucially, refugee NGOs.
The numbers are impressive: shot in more than 20 countries, with 25 film crews and featuring a score of experts involved in humanitarian aid, “Human Flow” must have been a logistical nightmare for the fixers on the ground. The documentary spans the globe, from Bangladesh to Iraq, Kenya to Mexico, boasting expansive drone sequences of refugee camps from high in the sky, distressing images of huddled survivors being helped off boats, and lots of shots of Ai, mingling with refugees. Missing however is any sense of the people behind the word “refugee.” As Hanan Ashrawi cogently states, being labeled a refugee robs you of your individuality. You become a number, not a person, just an anonymous digit in the numbing lists constantly scrawled across newscasts or, for that matter, “Human Flow,” which names on screen all the experts yet barely grants the same dignity to the men and women they’re advocating for.
Quotes from the New York Times, Die Zeit, Newsweek, etc. punctuate the flow of information as Ai and his crews shift from refugees coming into Europe by sea to the desperate thousands trapped in camps located in some of the world’s most inhospitable regions. The scandal of Macedonia’s closed borders, which led to similar closures in Hungary, Serbia and beyond, gets a look-in before moving on to the 75,000 refugees trapped along the Jordanian border. A brief mention of the misery within poorly outfitted camps leads to a short discussion of the significantly worse problems of refugees living outside organized shelters.
Maha Yahya, from the Carnegie Middle East Center, makes the connection between loss of dignity and the ease with which young men and women without hope can so easily fall prey to radicalization. From there, the documentary moves to Gaza and then Amir Khalil and the Four Paws organization, helping animals in distressed situations around the world. The problem of internal refugees is touched on in Afghanistan, where people encouraged to return are denied the right to reoccupy their former lands, instead forced into urban poverty. There’s a small bit on Mexico, and a little coverage of Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, located in Kenya. Oddly absent is any mention of the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria, though perhaps George Clooney’s admirably under-the-radar involvement there made it less attractive for another celebrity to take a look.
Interspersed with all this is Ai himself, cropping up regularly to play with kids, cook kebabs for refugees, react to forceful statements by Princess Dana Firas, and comfort a veiled woman who breaks down on camera. Yes, Ai stands #withrefugees, which is an admirable Twitter keyword yet by making this a self-described “personal journey,” he distracts from the real issues and turns the documentary into just another famous person’s endorsement of the latest humanitarian bandwagon. His motives are unquestionably genuine (this is a man who’s bravely fought an authoritarian regime and consistently defends the freedom of expression), but by insisting on his presence, the documentary becomes little more than a feature segment on a news program using a celebrity as a hook. Lost among the bulletins and traveling shots is any sense of the individuals whose distinctiveness is eliminated under the crushing word “refugee.”
Cinematically there are moments of true compositional beauty, especially at the start when stately images of a boat at sea (aesthetically attractive and practically devoid of meaning) shift to rougher sequences with a greater sense of urgency. Yet perhaps the large number of cinematographers is the reason why there’s nothing especially distinctive about the package, nothing to tell you this is the work of the most recognizable living artist of the moment. Well, recognizable by his figure at least.