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Why You Need to See Ai Wei Wei’s Film “Human Flow”

‘The more immune you are to human suffering… That is very, very dangerous


More than 65 million people around the world have been forced from their homes to escape famine, climate change and war, the greatest displacement since World War I. This number is yet to decrease: of the additional 2.4 billion of people predicted to be added to the world population between 2015 and 2050, 1.3 will be in Africa, a region particularly affected by those issues.

Facing these enormous changes, nations are unready, they are scared, unwilling; xenophobia rises and mental barriers erect. The phenomena is just to big to handle, governments prefer to neglect the problem and isolate themselves from this tumultuous world by building walls and securing their frontiers. When there were only 15 border walls after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, there is today around 70 of them (Reuters count, 2016).

As these numbers of such a catastrophe do not convey the human and subjective side of this crisis, renown Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, in response to the generalised misconception of this societal dilemma, gave himself the mission to give pictures and faces to this at once very distant and very near phenomena of our contemporary world.

A Global footage spanning the Greek shores, Lebanese suburbs, Sudanese deserts, Thailand’s refugee slums of Rohingya Muslim and the frontier between the US and Mexico, “Human Flow” sets us on a geographical and chronological journey of this phenomena as old as life on this planet, bestowing the public a general vision and a human comprehension of the contemporary emigrational crisis. Artistically-oriented, Ai Wei Wei’s work attempts to show the integral picture of the phenomenon, from its most cruel aspects to its temporary funny interludes, from the migrants’ travel and camp struggles to the police officers’ tentative of control of the situation.

This documentary is quite unusual, to say the least. Playing with disciplinary frontiers and rules, it is more of an art work than a journalistic investigation, more of a visual contemplation than a comprehensive documentation. News snapshots are intertwined with esoteric literary quotes, and that’s what’s best about this work. It shakes our prejudices and voluntary blindness, in a slow, striking and emotionally-moving 2 hours and 20 minutes of immersion in the life of these people we call ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’, which, we are forced to recognise, are us. Some sequences are solely composed of faces contemplation, the public eye in the eye with ‘migrants’. Others are shots of intimate and cute moments with its kids, which heartbreakingly keep all of their innocence, playfulness and natural happiness.

On a more artistic side, the documentary is truly innovative. Some beautiful aerial shots are made by drone, others are even made through the camera of Ai Wei Wei’s iPhone. The result in both is great, respectively conferring visual distance and sensuous immersion from one shot to the other. Ai Wei Wei constantly breaks the fourth wall between his documentary making and his pictures, by inserting shots of his interactions with refugees and of his filming. A powerful moment is when he stares at the camera while migrants in a refugee camp completely shave his hair: a long ambiguous moment conveying Ai Wei Wei’s mystique and artistic seriousness. It can be argued that the movie’s slow pace and long duration makes it painful to watch, yet this same heaviness is arguably necessary in raising our indignation for the tragic lives that we let marginalised.

“Human Flow” provides no easy answer to the complex tragedy of immigration. Ai Wei Wei forces us to look at the crisis in all of its extent and human damage, but it is from us that political solutions must come from. His work is unsparing about the consequences of our present actions, as it is first and foremost our human dignity which is at stake in the crisis. The futility of nationalism and frontiers is mercilessly exposed in the movie’s scenes, in which Ai Wei Wei pretends to exchange his German passport with a refugee’s Syrian one, or when he jokes on not knowing whether he trespassed the frontier between Mexico or not. As beautifully pointed out by a Palestinian speaker, these same walls only increase stereotypes about the person on the other side; people should instead learn to live with each other.

At some point in the movie, a tiger is being transported from his Tunisian zoo back to Madagascar, with an enormous collective effort to handle this very administratively and technically complex situation. The tiger is praised by the population which cheer, chant and dance around him on his departure. Is the tiger very different from human immigrants?

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