Human Flow

March 16, 2018
Ai Weiwei takes another selfie in 'Human Flow'

Human Flow is a relentless film about a relentless problem. There have always been refugees – people displaced from their homes by war, persecution or natural disaster – but we are living through an era when this activity has accelerated in many different parts of the world. Ai Weiwei takes us on a global tour of 23 countries, each with a refugee problem that seems far from any solution.

The consummate artist-activist, Ai has been making artworks about the worldwide refugee crisis for several years. When he had himself photographed lying on the beach in a pose borrowed from a photo of a small, drowned boy, it was considered a gesture in dubious taste. Yet ‘taste’ is the last thing Ai seems to care about.

Throughout his career he has been willing to speak the truth to power, to risk offending the authorities and even his supporters. His fearlessless has won him countless admirers in the west, particularly in Germany. In China, where he has been at his boldest, there is a widespread feeling that his actions are reckless and attention-seeking. Many people see him as a heroic figure, but for his detractors it’s hard to divorce his political activism from mere self-promotion.

None of this would be of concern to Ai. He is smart enough to know that every controversy allows him to reach a larger audience. In Sydney at present we can not only watch this film, but see his installation of a gigantic black, inflatable life raft with 300 figures, as part of the Biennale. The installation is pure spectacle, the subtlety and depth is supplied by the documentary.

If Ai has people arguing about his motives it means they are also thinking about the issues he is exploring. Most people in the west would probably prefer not to confront any vast global problem until it lands on their doorstep.

When we do think about the refugees we see on the TV news, it’s often with fear and loathing rather than compassion. The great scandal of Australian politics from the years of the Howard government until today is the way politicians have manipulated the fear of the Other for their own electoral advantage. For both the Coalition and the Labor party it’s been a race to the bottom, with neither side willing to risk votes by being ‘soft’ on refugees. The result is a progressive dehumanisation of asylum seekers in the public mind, as they are portrayed as the source of all social evils from unemployment to terrorism.

In Human Flow Ai puts a human face – or rather, many human faces – to the refugee crisis. He shows people living in conditions of desolation and squalor in makeshift tent cities, shabby huts, and soulless detention centres. In places such as Lebanon and Pakistan, entire generations of displaced people have grown up in these camps. Palestine is a virtual nation of displaced people. Even at home the Palestinians are denied legitimacy

One wonders what it must be like to grow up as a stateless person, not accepted by the place where one has always lived; absorbing stories of a homeland one has never seen. To be without a home is a cruel fate that leads to all sorts of social and psychological problems, to bitterness and radicalisation.

From one place to another Ai pops up like the good genie, taking selfies with the refugees, holding up handwritten messages of support, giving a Mexican a haircut, even swapping his Chinese passport with man from Syria. He gives us the statistics in a series of brief intertitles, also used to quote documents whose noble sentiments are systematically contradicted today. He leaves the stories and messages to talking heads from aid organisations and political groups.

The final say is given to a former Syrian astronaut, Mohammed Fares, who, taking the view from space, says we all need to learn to live together. It sounds simple but the difficulty of living together is the theme of this film.

Ai was in the first intake of the Beijing Film Academy in 1978, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, along with figures such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige who have become world-renowned directors. Human Flow attests to Ai’s familiarity with the filmic medium, but also to his artist’s eye. Amid the scenes of squalor and misery, there are many striking, poetic images. One thinks of refugees wearing coats of shiny foil, or a cow wandering down a street against a backdrop of dark clouds caused by burning oil wells.

Ai knows that we instinctively recoil when shown too much real-life horror, or are forced to listen to moralising lectures. His approach is to show us everything in relative silence, allowing us to take in each scene without an intrusive commentary. One minute we’re staring into the face of a child, the next we’re up among the clouds, looking down at a landscape of tents, cubicles or a vast field of discarded life jackets. Each jacket represents a human being who has made a perilous journey in search of a new life, many of them finding only political limbo or death. It’s a landscape of hope and despair in shades of orange.

Human Flow
Directed by Ai Weiwei
Written by Chin-Chin Yap, Tim Finch, Boris Cheshirkov
Germany/USA/China, rated M, 140 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 17 March, 2018