Something that tends to get lost in the political discourse around the European migrant crisis — as right-wing gatekeepers promote myths of hungry foreign invaders, countered by left-wing checking of privilege and opportunity — is that the ultimate goal of many a Syrian or Afghan refugee is not to forge a new life, but return to their old one. The day-to-day challenges of resettlement and the exhausting toll it takes on the homesick, however, are very much to the fore in “The Rest,” the second documentary on the crisis from Chinese superstar artist Ai Weiwei — and a more focused, intimately affecting one than his heaving 2017 panorama “Human Flow.” A full hour shorter than that film, though still covering substantial ground in its survey of refugees battling barbed wire and red tape from Calais to Lampedusa, this CPH: DOX premiere should match its predecessor’s popularity with festival programmers and arthouse buyers.
With a 140-minute runtime and a Venice competition berth, “Human Flow” announced itself as a kind of documentary event picture — even if, arriving amid a spate of nonfiction films on the same burning news story, it turned out to be less distinctive than might have been expected from Ai’s first feature. “The Rest” is a more modest affair all round, largely eschewing any sweeping cinematic technique for close-up scrutiny of embattled human subjects. It’s still a large, continent-crossing undertaking, cohesively edited by Wang Fen and shot, like “Human Flow,” by a veritable company of individuals behind the camera. That includes the director himself, though this is more identifiably the work of Ai the activist than Ai the artist. Aside from stray snatches of his voice in interview sequences, he’s not out to make his presence heavily felt in the midst of global-scale tragedy that, by this desperate point, has little use for auteur statements.
“Did I do the wrong thing?” an exhausted Syrian father asks to camera, as he faces hostile barriers and inhumane police treatment at an informal refugee camp in the Greek village of Idomeni. “Should I have left my children to the air raids, under the will of Allah?” He’s one of several bruised, disillusioned people in “The Rest” to express their astonishment that conditions in their supposed European sanctuary are scarcely safer or kinder than those from which they fled. The tone of their complaints ranges from rueful resignation — one survivor grimly chuckles as he recalls being “shot at like a dog” by border patrols — to unguarded despair, as one man who’s been stranded for six months in a Turkish camp awaits confirmation of the fate of 13 children lost at sea.
Ai’s perspective is wholly sympathetic to the refugees, with European authorities largely presented as faceless and coldly violent: The film’s most harrowing, remarkably captured sequence depicts the maelstrom that ensues when Macedonian army helicopters shoot tear gas at terrified refugees congregating at the Greek border. There is more humane European representation on hand, though their efforts, too, are met with oppression: One Italian village priest receives a death threat for his more benevolent attitude toward the new arrivals. If “The Rest” largely steers clear of explicit political rhetoric, it would appear Ai is appealing to less contentious human values of compassion (not to mention a universal “there’s no place like home” sentiment) shared across a broad international audience. That doesn’t make “The Rest” an especially groundbreaking statement on an ongoing headline issue, but it aims for the heart and hits with some force.
That is not to say the film is sentimental or unbarbed. The warmest, fuzziest scene in 78 minutes otherwise fraught with pain, fury and fear comes when one Syrian girl is reunited in Europe with her beloved cat, who completed its own arduous land-and-sea journey to relative safety. It’s an undeniable “awww” moment, but is Ai tacitly telling on his audience, noting with how much less prejudice we invest in the survival of a cute critter than that of a battered human asylum seeker? Ultimately, “The Rest” lets victims make that point for themselves: “Europe,” says one disgusted Iraqi refugee as he voluntarily returns to the dangers of his homeland, “has no respect for human beings.”