The Chinese contemporary artist and filmmaker Weiwei delivers a captivating life and death fresco of homeless hordes of people in Technicolor.

Ellen Lande
Ellen Lande
Ellen is a film director and freelance film critic. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: January 19, 2018

Human Flow

Ai Weiwei

Germany, USA, China, 2017

A helicopter’s searchlight criss-crossing the sea in search of survivors. An overcrowded refugee boat. Shivering people being helped ashore and wrapped in blankets. A huge Greek ferry dispensing a seemingly endless stream of humans. Yes, you’ve seen it all before – we’ve seen it all before. But never in the brilliant colours, and not on a scale like in Human Flow.  A bottomless, overwhelmingly immense number of people are on the move towards what they believe is security and survival. Sixty-five million people are currently fleeing from war, persecution and poverty, according to UN figures from 2016.

Weiwei lets us meet different representatives from, among others, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) who relates how the climate crisis and escalating conflicts are leading to a steady increase of the world’s refugee population. Weiwei seduces us with spectacular footage. He paints layer after layer of impressions of the enormous human exodus in a way that has never been done before, and does so with broad, disturbing, beautiful brushstrokes. “Why this emphasis on beauty,” several of the viewers asked during the film’s screening. The beauty captivates us. But does it do something more?

Human Monolith

An endless row of exhausted refugees on a Greek country road. The camera captures the raging river as the refugees hesitate on its banks. A few brave souls throw themselves in, only to be deprived of shoes and backpacks by the powerful current. The next scene is astounding: The refugees, up to their necks in water, form a human chain by huddling together, a horizontal monolith stubbornly defying the torrent. The scene grips me so much that I never want it to end. Just a few seconds later, Weiwei moves on.

«A packed mass of people forms a human chain by huddling together, a horizontal monolith stubbornly defying the torrent.»

Is Weiwei’s reticence, his emotional distance, the product of Chinese cultural mores?

Weiwei has shot footage in 23 countries. Refugees are pitted against each other. Some of them ask why their suffering isn’t as important as others. The film poses many such questions, but also reveals other patterns of conflict. Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees are pitted against Africans in terms of the attention and resources they receive. Are refugees on the African continent overlooked? UNHCR representatives report of dwindling resources.

Catch 22

Millions of people are fleeing, but most get stuck in refugee camps. Using drone footage, Weiwei creates a meditative, dreamlike experience. Below, a patchwork of refugee camps from all over the world glide by: white tents in straight lines, decrepit plastic tents mired in rubbish and dirt. The camera flies over camps of different standards and colours; camps drowned in mud, in sand-blown clay, in jungle clay. Your head is spinning; the rows of tents never end.

Weiwei swaps passports with a young refugee by the Greek-Macedonian border. The refugee throws his camp tent into the bargain; in exchange Weiwei gives him his studio in Berlin. The joke is interrupted; the border has been permanently closed. Thirteen thousand refugees are trapped in the provisional camp. Weiwei admits to a certain ambivalence, to being torn between feelings of personal involvement and impotence at not being able to help.

Ai Weiwei with Muhammed Hassan from Iraq on Lesvos Island in Greece, from the documentary “Human Flow.”

Weiwei himself spent his childhood in a labour camp in China. His father, a poet, was forced to clean toilets and repeatedly tried to kill himself. Weiwei, too, is a poet. And it’s the poetry he creates with his exceptional cinematic scenes that moves us the most.

In Kenya, yellow sand and dirt are blowing so hard that people only become discernible at very close range. Weiwei holds up a sheet of paper bearing the words “I stand with the refugees”, but ironically, it’s blown away before he can film it. Is this the case of his whole involvement?

Inhuman Limbo

We encounter a driver digging through rubbish in search of food. He finds some half-empty bottles and some scraps to eat. At home, the children are running manically in a circle. In Gaza, a tiger is running in circles leaving the zookeeper worried. Working earnestly with four national authorities they finally get the tiger out of Gaza – an animal deserves better living conditions. At the same time, the film relates the story of generations of people forced to stay in Gaza. And not only there – the film throws light on hundreds and thousands of people all over the world who are trapped in limbo at border crossings and in internment camps.

«Using drone footage to capture a patchwork of refugee camps from all over the world, Weiwei creates a meditative, dreamlike experience.»

Europe and Turkey agreed in March 2016 to a deal that will keep the refugees in Turkey in exchange for a hefty payment and free visas for Turkish nationals to Europe. Turkey can send the refugees back at any point – few get refugee status granted in Turkey. There are no programs for integrating refugees or opportunities for work or schooling.

Weiwei directs his focus to the dangerous consequences of the EU’s persistent willingness to pay its way out of the refugee crisis, last seen in its deal with Libya. Since the release of the film, CNN has documented the emergence of slave markets as one extreme consequence of the EU-Libya agreement. (see Other outlets report of a brutal Libyan coast guard provoking mass drownings.

«Weiwei directs his focus to the dangerous consequences of the EU’s persistent willingness to pay its way out of the refugee crisis; the ultimate consequence of the EU-Libya agreement is the re-emergence of slavery.»

Weiwei’s questioning of where our humanity has gone is a recurring theme through the film’s scenes from different countries. In Iraq the oil fields have been set alight. Black, toxic smoke gushes out while children nearby play football and digging machines make futile attempts at quelling the flames. Family life is played out in houses blackened by fire. A rejected refugee recounts how inhuman it is to have to drag her son along for 60 days without finding anywhere she can seek asylum. She throws up and the camera stops. Another refugee mother exclaims: “How can we live a good life here? It’s so unbearable that we’re counting every second.”

Christmas Tree

Weiwei has created a powerful, weighty composition about people forced from their homes all over the globe. The film leaves an image in me of a desperate, faceless flood of people brutally pouring in across Europe’s borders. The film communicates a duality – fear of the huge, homeless masses on the one side, and the precarious, calamitous plight of the people on the other.

Human Flow Director: Ai Weiwei

In the final scene Weiwei makes another monumental manoeuvre: zooming in on a small pile of discarded life jackets, the camera ascending, gradually revealing an enormous mountain of them.

14,000 of the life jackets covering the pillars of the Konzerthaus in Berlin 2016. Weiwei has placed 300 installations around the city as a provocative comment on the refugee crisis and the inhumanity he wants to combat. The exhibition will remain in place till February 2018.

In New York people are already up in arms; one of Weiwei’s many border fence installations has displaced the city’s oldest public Christmas tree display.

Modern Times Review