HUMAN FLOW

Reviewed by GREG KING

Documentary

Director: Ai Weiwei.

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In this heartfelt and disturbingly topical and relevant documentary, dissident Chinese artist/activist and documentary filmmaker Ai Weiwei explores the issue of the refugee crisis sweeping the world, the greatest manmade tragedy of the new millennium. Some of his own art installation works have also explored the refugee issue, so it is obviously an issue close to his heart.

With hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing their war-torn homelands in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the world is facing the biggest humanitarian crisis and influx of displaced persons since WWII. Europe is struggling to cope, and many countries have even begun to close their borders. As the film points out, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 only 11 countries had physical barriers like walls. Now the number is something like 70.

Over the course of one year, Weiwei travels to 23 different countries and visits squalid refugee camps to get a sense of the wretched conditions in which these refugees live, and the profoundly personal impact of this crisis. He looks at the overcrowded refugee camps, the dangerous seas crossings, and the borders being put up to control this migration.

This is an epic and ambitious film. Weiwei conducted some 600 interviews during the course of the film, talking to a number of people involved in humanitarian organisations working with refugees to get a good sense of the scope of the problem. He also talks to some of the refugees themselves to get a sense of the dislocation and disillusionment they experience, giving the film a human-interest angle. He gives us plenty of disturbing facts and figures and provides plenty of food for thought. He is an empathetic presence; he gives us a fairly personal viewpoint to the material and he takes part in a number of refugee landings on the Greek island of Lesbos himself. The film shares some similarities with Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire At Sea, which screened at MIFF last year, which dealt with a boat of refugees heading to the island of Lampedusa.

And while he explores the hardships of their lives he also manages to find some moments of happiness and resilience as the refugees try to remain upbeat and optimistic, giving us a sense of hope about their future.

This is a hauntingly beautiful, almost poetic looking film despite the grim subject matter. There is some beautiful imagery here as well as some spectacular drone shots, giving us great views of the scope and size of some of these refugee camps. A crew of 200 was involved across several countries to shoot the film. Ten credited cinematographers have worked on the film, including the great Christopher Doyle, best known for his work on the gorgeous looking films of Wong Kar-Wai. Weiwei shot some 900 hours of footage, which was deftly edited by Neils Pagh Andesen (the chilling documentary The Act Of Killing, etc) in Weiwei’s Berlin studio. Weiwei also brings his artist’s eye to the material as he has shot plenty of footage on his own small digital camera.

This is a heartfelt and eye-opening documentary, but while Weiwei doesn’t sugar coat the issue he fails to provide any real solutions to a serious problem. There is also a randomness to the way the film is structured as it moves from one refugee hotspot to another. There is no traditional voice over narration to give the material a context, but there are a few subtitles, haunting quotes, and facts printed on the screen. And text crawls across the bottom of the screen, like news bulletin updates, giving us timely updates on how different countries are handling the dire crisis, and how news media are reporting the crisis.

And at an overly generous 140 minutes Human Flow is too long and seems a bit repetitive in nature.

★★★

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