A silent city reduced to ruin.
Life jackets floating peacefully upon the Mediterranean Sea.
Barbed wire borders, beyond which green pastures lie.
There’s an ominous serenity to be found in Human Flow, the new documentary from Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. A tease of the freedom and peace that 32 million displaced people from across the world have left their homes in search of.
Such potent imagery is a necessity in a film that seeks to portray the experience of refugees without fetishising their plight, or suggesting that it can provide a solution to the crisis. It’s an exceptional challenge – language is the least of the barriers that exist between international camera crews and despondent families who have abandoned everything but their lives in hope of a better future.
Ai himself is, for the most part, careful not to let his presence on camera distract from this goal. There are moments where he receives a haircut, or talks with a woman as she shows him pictures of her the costumes her cat used to wear back home, but they ultimately serve as hopeful, intrinsically human moments amidst the chaos and confusion that is the everyday lives of these people.
Even with cinematographers like acclaimed Australian DoP Christopher Doyle assisting with the project, much of the documentary is shot on smartphone, providing a sense of stark realism. Scenes of a dark tent in which a young man tries to console his crying older brother, and the moment French police flag down a smuggler’s truck, feel all the more impactful because they are raw. Because capturing them honestly is more important than framing or light levels. It’s in moments like these that we see Ai in his element as a director.
The real highlights, however, are the stunning helicopter and drone shots that capture everything from a dangerous river crossing to the roaring fires upon the Iraqi oilfields. Not only do they provide a sense of scale, but encourage a change of perspective that’s embodied in the words of former Syrian astronaut Mohammad Faris, who says that his time on Soyuz TM-3 made him realise that “…each human being on Earth is a universe. Sadly, there are evil people on Earth. Let’s send them into space”.
Human Flow crosses 23 countries, with the critical closing sequence set on the US-Mexico border. In it, Ai and his team are confronted by a border guard, who warns them that they have stepped beyond a wooden pole that marks the start of US territory. Ai seems pleased by the interaction as the guard drives away – it’s a perfect example of the mentality that has seen border gates shutting across Europe, and forced refugees to return to the homelands in which they are being persecuted, or set up camp and pray for a miracle.
At 140 minutes, it’s a particularly long documentary, though it never feels like it. Ai doesn’t waste a frame, though often makes a point of lingering on faces before cutting away. He wants us to look. To really look, in a way we never have before.
Perhaps, more than any film of its kind, Human Flow is the one that will make audiences do just that. Ai and his team have not only succeeded in creating a piece of art that stirs empathy without feeling exploitative, but also a testament to the truth that seeing is believing.
Human Flow is in Australian cinemas now.