Much has been said about the power of film, of how effective the audio-visual format is to the art of storytelling. With Human Flow, renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei cleverly harnesses this power to bring to our screens an astounding portrait of one of the biggest crises of our times. Interspersed with newspaper headlines, cold hard facts and evocative verse, the film casts a wide net (too wide, some may argue) in its examination of the migrant crisis; causes of which include not only war and unstable regimes but also increasingly, climate change.
Weiwei spent a year across twenty-three countries, closely charting the lives of several people at varying points in their journey, all united in their hope for a peaceful future. He succeeds in putting forth a human voice to the crisis, one which often gets lost in policymakers’ roundtables. This is especially witnessed in the little moments of the film such as when a young Afghani boy playfully pesters his mum with his balloon animals, his innocence unbeknownst to the fact that the Greek-Macedonian border closure has thrown a further spanner in the works.
The narrative oscillates from the larger, macro problems to the micro narratives of the refugees in different contexts, often lingering uncomfortably longer with the latter. This approach works only too well, helping the narrative achieve its raison d’être. Weiwei’s provocative method is apparent in one scene in particular, when he engages in somewhat flippant banter with a young man in one of the camps. Talk of exchanging passports and the artist’s Berlin studio for the young man’s tent appears to be a cleverly-crafted attempt at pricking the bubble of privilege most of us inhabit in the western world. With Brexit, Trump and the growing clout of the far-right, Human Flow comes at a topical time to reiterate that the right to move to secure a brighter future is an inherently basic human right. That its helmed by Weiwei, a dissident artist and migrant himself, unwelcome in his native China, gives the film further poignancy, especially when he appears on screen, whether to share a cup of chai with a Syrian man or to console a woman, overwhelmed with despair.
In stressing on the specifics of the EU-Turkey refugee deal, the film does not just seek to remind the EU of its original aims but also urges us to develop a bold, humane response to what Weiwei has called a ‘human crisis’. Not since the second world war have we seen as many as 65 million people across the world displaced from their homes. Through a meandering sequence of visuals and facts, Human Flow defies conventional narrative structures to emerge an essential watch.
Human Flow premieres tonight
It is out in cinemas on 8th December