Saturday, 31 March 2018

Review: Human Flow

Ai Weiwei follows the plight of refugees in 23 countries
Refugees are all over the world, but have you ever met one?

Leaving their home is their last resort -- it is not a decision they take lightly. Uprooting themselves, carrying their belongings and traveling to a place by foot or boat or train without knowing what the conditions will be like, how much it will cost -- if they will make it alive -- is very scary.

But this is what has happened to millions of people who fled Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan in 2015 to Europe and Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei was there to document it.

He was moved by these refugees and wanted to document their lives and their deplorable situation in Human Flow. For two hours and 20 minutes, he goes to 23 countries and greets, walks and talks to refugees to learn more about their plight.

They include the Rohingyas, Eritreans, Sudanese, Palestinians, Afghanis, Syrians, Iraqis, Kurds. We see them up close, staring into the camera looking frightened and at other times up from above, looking like ants.

They walk for days to get to the border to find it closed
Mixed in between are "talking heads", people from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), political leaders, doctors, volunteers, even a Jordanian princess, explaining how they deal with refugees. Some try to show their compassion, others criticize governments for not doing enough.

I've seen footage of refugees in camps on the TV news, but this is watching them as they walk for hours, carrying all their items with them, or having to try to keep warm and relatively dry in a tent when it's pouring rain, or living in a giant hangar with subdivided compounds filled with bunk beds. Many struggle just to get clean water, let alone food and decent shelter.

You quickly empathize with them and wonder if you could survive such a terrible situation where no government wants to accept them and leaves them to fend for themselves in the middle of nowhere. The refugees feel they have come so far that they can't go back to where they came from.

Living conditions in makeshift tents are hardly clean
Interspersed between the different scenes are facts like the average time someone is a refugee is 26 years. Palestinians have been refugees for over 60 years. Again I would read about their struggle in news stories, but actually seeing their living environment really brings it home.

They can be in the middle of making bread in a factory and suddenly the electricity is shut off. The water is less clean and there is garbage everywhere. How do they endure this for so long?

Some of the images terrifyingly beautiful -- oil refineries in Afghanistan are set on fire as Islamic State retreats. A man with a mask calmly walks in his robes towards the raging fire with billowing black smoke. Or people in Kenya walking along the desert in a dust storm.

Periodically you see Ai in the shot, walking along or taking pictures or videos on his phone (some of it is used). Sometimes it seems odd to see him there, but at other times he offers comic relief, such as exchanging his Chinese passport for a Pakistani one with a refugee, or making chuar, or meat skewers over charcoal.

Refugees from climate change in Kenya cross the desert
But he wants viewers to see that he was there on the ground, unlike political leaders who don't seem to know or care about what is going on, and would rather close borders than receive these people who have suffered so much.

More people need to watch Human Flow to understand what refugees have gone through, and have a better appreciation for their own situations. Having to physically and mentally endure so much and be treated like less than human beings is shocking and sad.


  1. howcome ai wei wei can leave the country?? what happens after exchanged passport with a pakistani man??

    1. They gave each other their respective passports right away afterwards. In a way Ai is no better than them with a Chinese passport...