Arts movie review

A lifejacket and a passport: an exploration of refugee migration

‘Human Flow’ offers a heartbreaking and thought-provoking stories of the global refugee crisis

Directed by Ai Weiwei
Music composed by Karsten Fundal
Cinematography by Christopher Doyle, Zanbo Zhang, Renaat Lambeets, Wenhai Huang, Johannes Waltermann, and Dongxu Li
Rated PG-13, Now Playing

A giant blue square. Silence, serenity, and an ocean. In the opening aerial shot of Human Flow, the dark ripples go on for miles. A single white bird interrupts the tranquility, flying across the screen. The intruder is soon followed by a raft filled to the brim with the bright orange of lifeboats and the top of hat-covered heads. The scene, saturated with imagery, looks dim, raw, and cold as we see the boats make it to sure. No paddles are being used — instead, tires and hands dip into the dark water to propel the overcrowded raft to shore. There’s shouting and dysfunction as human beings are lifted off and carted away.

Shot over the span of a year in over 23 countries, Human Flow covers a lot of heavy content in 140 minutes. Local production managers, drones, data wranglers, researchers, editors, all contributed to portraying the conditions and stories of migrants from all over the world in a series of cuts from moving interviews from refugees, statements by politicians and agencies, thought-provoking poetry and scriptures, drone-generated camera spans, and excellent cinematography. The film does not center on an individual story. Instead, the bits and pieces from various scenes seem intentional to the point of the film; we are constantly shown the dehumanization of the refugees by various subconscious and external forces. We are reminded that the crisis is not isolated but rather an immediate and immense issue for human beings and countries around the world.

Scene after scene portray how the migrant lifestyle is marked by severe living conditions with limitations on autonomy. For example, the audience is shown a camp in Iraq, completely beige with hundreds of tents lined up in an orderly fashion, forming a rigid grid against the dust. We’re reminded that there have been 268,000 people killed and 4 million displaced since the 2003 US invasion. A particularly memorable scene depicts refugees standing solo against the stark white backdrop of their tents, looking straight at the camera in silence for a protracted period of time. You see them as an individual — the slight crook of their nose and the fidgeting of their hand. You see them as human.

Throughout the movie, phrases, definitions, poetry, and quotes are left on the screen for some time. One such instance was the UN Refugee Convention’s definition of a refugee, as “a person with a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” We’ve all heard this before. We’ve seen the news.

However, the way that Weiwei shows the essence of migration through the collection of scenes communicates the misery and lack of dignity at a level that no words can communicate. He does this not in an understated manner, with silent closeups of mundane tasks such as smoking, making bread, little boys coming up to the camera with a sheepish toothless smile, and one-on-one conversations. We are given a window into the mindset and feelings of those at the heart of the issue.

A young man with a baby in his arms says determinedly, “we will reach a country that will help us and we will return the favor.” A Rohingya muslim is brought to tears saying “we didn’t want to leave our country.” African refugees wrap themselves in what looks like giant golden candy wrappers and are herded into boats. An Afhgan woman who traveled all the way to Macedonia just to find the border closed promises “no one leaves their country lightly.” Refugees in Pakistan sit together and chant “Human” over and over again. A Palestinian man shows the graveyard of his family that drowned at sea. A refugee woman asserts, “I’d like to see the leaders sleep here one night,” and deal with the infectious disease, snakes, spiders, insects, dirt, weather, cold, and hunger in her camp.

The problems are real and they are anything but sugarcoated by the film. Over 65 million people are currently displaced, which is the highest number since WWII.  When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there were 11 countries with border fences and walls. By 2016, there were 70 countries with them. Refugee children are missing school for an alarmingly large amount of time, making social integration and job finding, which their parents are already struggling with, even harder for the next generation.

Human Flow is stunning; it depicts a crisis that is incredibly large and pervasive and appeals to the hearts of those who recognize the plight of the determined, marching migrants. The film reminds us that the world is shrinking, and people from different cultures and religions are going to have to learn to live together. The imploring words of one Syrian astronaut ring clear, “when i was an astronaut, I saw from space how each human being on Earth is a universe. All human beings live in one big nation as brothers. We must all share.” The film ends on another astounding aerial view of people running like ants on sand, followed by thousands of life jackets piled up among debris — a sobering reminder of what happens when compassion does not prevail.