Human Flow by internationally acclaimed artist and activist Ai Weiwei, highlights the plight of refugees around the world. The Chinese dissident is not the first to make a documentary about the displaced, but his film captures the flow of humanity on a planetary scale. 

Ai filmed in 23 different countries in 40 different refugee camps where people fleeing war, environmental crises and religious persecution were staying. His goal is to show that the flood of refugees has global repercussions.

“You are forcibly robbing this human being of all aspects that would make human life not just tolerable but meaningful in many ways,” says a voice in the documentary.

According to the film, over 65 million people in the world today have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Using cameras attached to drones, Ai Weiwei records humanity’s movement from up high. 

Ai, a renowned artist known for his massive art installations with social and political connotations around the world, is an unassuming, soft- spoken man with a thoughtful expression. Sitting opposite me in one of the studios of the Voice of America, he snaps my picture on his iPhone along with many others he has taken that day of people and exhibits on VOA’s hallways. I feel like an art installation. I ask him what prompted him to make a film about human flow.

“It was serendipitous,” he responds.  

An unexpected opportunity

While vacationing on the Greek island of Lesbos with his family, Ai saw a boat full of refugees approaching. He started filming immediately on his phone.

Known for his political activism against communist China, his imprisonment, torture and subsequent exile, he lives in Berlin now and one would hardly believe that anything could take the Chinese dissident by surprise. But as he relates, filming and living with refugees in makeshift camps was unlike anything he had experienced before. 

“We have been hearing about the refugees all the time in the news. But to see a real group of people come down is very different. You see the children, the women, and you see those elderly people and they are tired, they are frightened, they basically risk their lives, give up everything, to come to just try to find safe conditions. Even though I grew up in a communist society we didn’t see these kinds of things happen. So, for me it is a shock, and I think it’s an opportunity to learn about what really happened. “

Human Flow shows masses fleeing wars, religious persecution, and environmental disasters.  At times his film feels like another one of his enormous art installations, with humanity playing a dual lead, both as a massive organism and as single individuals staring into a camera. The effect is more visceral than intellectual and that is exactly what Ai Weiwei wants to convey.

“We wanted to build an understanding about human flow. Human flow as always happens in human history. In many cases, it is part of our humanity and our civilization,” he says.

Stemming the flow

But the social anomaly of our times, says the filmmaker, is the effort by countries to stem that flow by preventing refugees from crossing borders and integrating into new societies.  After a harrowing sea voyage and days of walking, many refugees from the Middle East make their way to northern Greece, only to be stopped on its border with Macedonia. 

“Over seventy borders have built up their fences and walls and have forbidden any refugee to pass through. So, by doing that, they are really not only stopping  the life line of those refugees to try to find a safe place, even just temporarily across the border and go to another location, but are also putting them in extremely dangerous conditions.”

Ai talks about human smuggling and sex trafficking of a very vulnerable population, mostly of women and children.

At a refugee camp in Turkey, he films an exasperated doctor trying to take care of the young. He points to a baby: “two months old, and born here but he didn’t have any vaccinations.” The deplorable health conditions are one of the many problems plaguing the stateless. A man stands knee high in mud, looking at a cemetery filled with drowned refugees, relatives and friends. He hides his head in his hands and sobs.

A warning for the future

Ai Weiwei warns if we don’t save those people from displacement, entire generations — born without identity, prospects for a better life or a country — will be vulnerable to extremism and radicalization.

“I think, if you see so many children growing up under these conditions, in this 65 million people, now it’s getting much bigger, with 420,000 refugees added from Myanmar, how will these children behave, when they grow up, after they have seen how their parents have been badly treated, unfairly treated, the world watching but doing nothing. What kind of image would remain in their minds?”

Ai Weiwei is very critical of Europe and the United States for lacking empathy, leadership and vision about the refugee issue. He sees the elections of ultra-right governments in Europe and of Donald Trump in the US as dire for refugees worldwide.

“It certainly requires global leaders and also every citizen to be involved to solve the problem,“ he says, warning, if this does not change, no one’s future is safe.



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