Film Review: "Human Flow" is a necessary and beautiful documentary
Most of us are suckers for a good documentary.
I could not tell you the number of times that I’ve had heavy discussions about the madness of The Imposter or the emotionally exhausting, yet incredible Dear Zachary (a film that I refuse to ever watch again). Perhaps this is more of a testament to my habit of repeating conversation topics, but I’ve found that documentaries seem to be the genre of film that unites most of us. Your Netflix and Chill session may lead to an argument over foreign film vs. horror, before eventually settling on Amy or Icarus. Human Flow is definitely a beautiful piece that fits into this category.
Human Flow is a project by artist/activist, Ai Weiwei, an attempt to raise awareness on the rising number of refugees. Covering 23 countries, shot over the span of a year, Human Flow covers the lives of just some of the 65 million refugees currently displaced from their homes. At times, Ai Weiwei inserts himself into the documentary, and while it could have taken away from the narrative, it mostly provides a level of solidarity, showing the asylum seekers as people instead of creating a spectacle out of them. I say mostly, as there is one extremely uncomfortable scene where Ai Weiwei jokes with a refugee about swapping passports and homes, mentioning that he could take over his “studio apartment in Berlin”. It was a cringe-inducing scene, but is redeemed by later interactions where he moves to the sidelines, consoling a woman, but not letting his presence overtake the moment. On top of the standard camera crew, the film is made up of a mixture of clear-yet-shaky iPhone footage and expansive drone shots. While drone footage can be overdone, it provides the audience with a clear understanding of the scale of the situation while creating an exceptionally beautiful piece.
The film opens with a shot of the calm ocean, a small dinghy boat slowly approaching the shore. As it gets closer, you’re able to see the bodies all crammed into the tiny space, and upon arrival the babies are handed out, followed by relieved passengers turning on their phones in order to let their loved ones know that they’re safe. It’s a raw scene that shows the struggles refugees go through in order to seek asylum, one that set the tone for the film, driving a point that most of us are aware of. And yet, the audience member sitting next to me was able to scoff and whisper to her friend, “Those are some pretty nice phones”.
This is why we need this documentary. We all cultivate a bubble of people, those who share similar views and interests as us, so it’s easy to forget that there is a large number of people who truly don’t understand what is driving our current refugee crisis. It’s easy to look at someone with a decent phone and assume that their life isn’t that bad. It’s easy to assume that most of the 65 million people are only “economic migrants”. It’s easy to just not think about it. Ai Weiwei is able to jump between locations; with the occasional quote overlay to show the scale of the crisis.
There is no questioning of the reasoning of those who have been forcibly displaced. There is no discussion of who is right or wrong in these conflicts. Unlike most films that attempt to tackle this topic, there is little focus on the conflicts at all. The level of unknown and everyday unease is made clear to the audience. There is no point where they are questioned or demonised, everyone is displayed with dignity. The end result is an intimate story of people trying to get from A to B, and the struggles that they face along the way, driving the audience to understand that it isn’t an easy choice, nor a clear-cut path.
The film is, perhaps, a little too long. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, I found myself checking my watch a couple of times. However, I do understand that there is a lot of material that the film needs cover. By the time it ended, I was attempting to regain circulation in my legs and managed to see the previously mentioned audience member look fairly stunned. Perhaps the message of the film was able to stick with the entire audience? I then noticed that her partner had fallen asleep halfway through the documentary…maybe not all of us, then.