The Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has been making art about the refugee crisis for years. Human Flow now takes his concern to the big screen, with a visually breathtaking documentary that attempts to convey the staggering global scale of the problem.
Exhaustive and, at over two hours, exhausting, it charts events over the course of one year in 23 countries, dropping in and out of refugee hotspots in places as diverse as Iraq, Afghanistan, Greece, Germany, and France.
Weiwei documents the mass movement of people across land and sea, beginning by greeting tired and traumatised refugees arriving in Lesbos, offering soothing words and warm cups of tea, and then following them as they make their way along muddy roads and through a roiling river, only to find their route blocked by razor wire and a fence at the Macedonian border. The film then branches out in ways which seem arbitrary, but have a poetic coherence.
Throughout, majestic drone shots take us flying over bombed-out towns, vast refugee camps and isolated villages. Weiwei moves from the macro to the micro, the abstract to the intimate, showing us the scale of the problem, but also listening to individual personal stories. We hear about drownings and rapes, hopes and fears, and get a sense, via the refugees and a number of expert talking heads, of how Europe is failing to live up to the ethical frameworks it created in charters following World War 2.
Weiwei doesn’t just want us to recognise our shared humanity, but the inhumanity shown to people who, like us, just want peace, security, dignity and respect. The scale of the problem is mind-bogglingly big though, and the film offers no solutions. How could it? It is, however, an urgent call for empathy and compassion, and a powerful reminder of the saying “There but for the grace of God go I”.