I don’t even know how to begin writing about “Human Flow” by Ai Weiwei (“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”), because it is a piece that is so much bigger than us. It requires us to recognize our privilege in viewing such crisis without it being a part of our own human experience. The documentary, which was shot in 23 countries, presents both a brutal, visceral and at times strikingly gorgeous display of the current global crisis in which 65 million people have been displaced from their homes.
Weiwei, known more for his controversial reputation in the art world, has participated in documentary cinema before, though never to this extent. As a visual artist, he treats his documentary like a canvas, splattering it with color and layers of impressive drone shots and handheld iPhone footage. He allows us to feel like we’re right there with the migrants and refugees — one the of individual bodies out of thousands, huddled into masses on a rugged terrain that has no remorse for its occupiers. These migrants, tied down to no land to anchor them, are considered to be the most pervasive status of citizenship, as they are stripped of all the rights and liberties that make them human beings.
“Human Flow” reveals the global crisis that plagues every country, but mainly Europe today — the crisis of people fleeing their homes for asylum and passing through or being trapped in borders. The piece criticizes borders in general, as they are inherently arbitrary in their nature. With the aid of globalization, the world has reaped many benefits, namely the prospect of wealth and jobs, but its consequences are severe. Globalization exacerbates the global inequalities, and through this process, the large, connected world we know is beginning to shrink. This means that different cultures are going to have to learn to coexist in order for humanity to persist. Like the title, the flow of bodies in search of refuge and a new life are at risk of hunger, disease, death and above all, the loss of a chance for a better life.
Weiwei’s visual approach is guided by the natural landscape across these countries; the way the sky meets the unforgiving, arid and sun-scorched Middle Eastern deserts. The image of Mexican children playing on a beach with an iron fence running through it with the States on the other side is a painful reminder of palpable but still unattainable freedom. The sea connects these countries as a visual motif, but also as a juxtaposition of the free-flowing, wide open waters that touch country borders but cannot be shared equally by all. We see the sea that transports Eritreans to southern Italy for political asylum, the same sea that a group of friends in Gaza who turn to the Mediterranean for their only chance at tranquility in a war zone, the same sea that runs up to Tel Aviv just one hour north, the same sea and sun that caress their bronzed tourists is the same sea that traps others just down the coast.
If anything, the documentary reminds those of us who are fortunate enough to be citizens in a country — to feel like we belong somewhere and that we are protected — about how connected we truly are and how we choose to neglect this fact simply because we don’t see malnourished children in refugee camps daily, which the news likes to conveniently overlook, too. Europe and America were lands that were thought to provide promise and solace to immigrants, but Weiwei reminds us that the current xenophobia and segregation between these groups is not something we can ignore any longer. “Human Flow” doesn’t let us forget that, no matter what, we all share the same sun and no group deserves its warmth over others. It doesn’t let us forget that we need to stop forgetting about this crisis before it’s too late.