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