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‘Human Flow’ (review)

Produced by Ai Weiwei,
Chin-Chin Yap, Heino Deckert

Executive Produced by Andrew Cohen,
Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann

Directed by Ai Weiwei


I was in Chicago earlier this year and I spent about 40 minutes of about 4 hours in the Chicago Art Institute with Marc Chagall’s America Windows. The deep rich blues and expressive colors overwhelm and the beauty is so powerful words don’t do them justice. They are a masterwork and I found them as close to perfection as any art I have seen in this world.

Human Flow is evocative in the same way and some very different ones.

It is as close to documentary perfection as I have ever seen.

This is a long documentary, but I found myself so engrossed in the subject matter it never occurred to me how long it was.

The flow of the film is surprisingly gentle, heading across the world, giving us a wide angle snapshot of the plight of refugees in the world. The astonishing cinematography and visuals combine with the short and biting commentary from experts drive Ai Weiwei’s message into you.

The heartbreaking commentary from the refugees themselves cements that message forever.

“Being a refugee is much more than a political status. It is the most pervasive kind of cruelty that can be exercised against a human being by depriving the person of all forms of security and the most basic requirements of a normal life. By cruelly placing that person at the mercy of inhospitable host countries that don’t want to receive this refugee you are forcibly robbing this human being of all aspects of human life that are not just tolerable, but meaningful.”

– Dr Hanan Ashrawi. Sydney Peace Prize Award Winner

The cinematography team did an amazing job. This film has a visual clarity and production value that I haven’t seen in many documentaries. It being an Amazon Films, Magnolia Pictures collaboration tells me they probably had a very nice budget to execute against. It does not appear that they wasted a dime. The drone photography alone should get this film nominated for awards. It was, without question, the most effective and powerful use of drone cameras I’ve experienced. The overarching theme of this film is to humanize people the world has knowingly and unknowingly de-humanized and they use a drone camera at one point in the film to punctuate this in a robust way.

“If children grow up without any hope, any prospects for the future, without any sense of them being able to make something of their lives they become very vulnerable to sorts of exploitation, including radicalization.”

– Maha Yahya, Acting Director – Carnegie Middle East Center

The film details the challenges of refugees around the world. Borders being closed to them, trapping them in countries that don’t want them and preventing them from getting to countries that might. Even when they get to a country that has a good mechanism for intake, like Germany, acclimating is a substantial challenge. Soul crushing boredom and hopelessness punish the ones who make it there. I suppose this is better than rape, disease, starvation, and death, which face the people that don’t make it, but no matter the outcome the pain these people endure is brutal and unending.

The film accentuates each chapter with superimposed news headlines or statistics that paint the depth of the global refugee crisis. This is an effective tool Ai Weiwei uses throughout Human Flow to help the viewer understand that what they see on the screen is just a snap shot. It is a small peek into a depth that affects 60 million people world wide. The refugee crisis is increasing globally at a time global humanitarian and physical resources are shrinking. Approximately 25% of the global refugee population sits in sub-Saharan Africa and they expect the population of Africa to double by 2050.

The refugees are the emotional hammer that beats the viewer over and over again. The Kurdish man describing how much time he spent building his home for future generations of his family as it lays in war torn ruin behind them. The Iraqi telling us his story as he stands in a graveyard. The Palestinian girls in Gaza hopefully talking about how they want to travel, see the world, learn and come back to Gaza, but the world has no place for them as one of the girls sits quietly with an Andy Warhol book in her lap.

The visual power of this film cannot be overstated. It doesn’t matter the geography of the refugee, their eyes are the same. They are haunting, searching and empty at the same time. Ai Weiwei doesn’t protect you from them.

It is truly impossible to avoid parallels to the Holocaust and the plight of refugees during World War II while telling this story. At one point, one of the experts actually spells this out explicitly saying there hasn’t been a global refugee crisis like this since the 1940’s. There are shots of refugees marching silently through the woods of Europe and refugees trapped in camps behind razor wire, or walled off from the rest of the world in modern ghettos.

Global refugees suffer daily in ways I cannot begin to comprehend, but Ai Weiwei brought me into their world a little bit with an Oscar worthy documentary I will never forget.

“The hardest is to make them feel like human beings. Not just 1 of 1 million who came to Germany. On a daily basis [we try to] make people feel like human beings and we care about them.”

– Maria Kipp, Spokesperson, Tamaja Shelter


5 out of 5 stars


Human Flow will be available on Digital HD on January 9th.


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