Human Flow (2017)

Review #1,597

Director:  Ai Weiwei
Plot:  A detailed and heartbreaking exploration into the global refugee crisis.

Genre:  Documentary
Awards:  Won 5 awards & nom. for Golden Lion (Venice)
Runtime:  140 mins
Rating:  PG (passed clean) for thematic material including a disturbing image
International Sales:  Lionsgate

Some staggering statistics about the worldwide refugee crisis accompany the documentary as it plays out to nearly 2 ½ hours of heartbreaking footage of tens of thousands of people (we of course only see the tip of the iceberg) displaced by civil war, conflict and politics.  Periodically, an info bar would run across the bottom of the screen in a ‘news flash' style, reminding us of key news headlines of recent years.  

In the bid to shock audiences with its topical relevancy and startling visual impact, Human Flow proves to be successful in evoking genuine concern for humanity, even if most of us—powerless in the cinema, and perhaps in life—won’t be able to do much except to raise awareness and donate to certain trustworthy causes (which in itself may not even assuage any guilt of not doing anything more tangible).  There’s certainly another way: through the contested prism of inter-national and intra-national politics, though that in itself presents a barrel of serpents altogether.  

Ai Weiwei, China’s leading sociopolitical activist, heads a team of skilled documentarians who travel to 23 countries to paint as comprehensively as they can both the macro and micro pictures of the continually unfolding humanitarian disaster.  Over 600 interviews and 900 hours of footage were said to be shot, which means there could be enough usable material to produce a thematic trilogy of sorts, or even a television series.  But whether there’s a demand for it is another thing altogether.

Human Flow brings us uncomfortably close to things we don’t see (or perhaps only see or read about in news snippets), but it could also be the most encompassing and resonant film Ai has ever envisioned, one that is both accessible to the mainstream as it is to cinephiles.  Its main competition berth at the Venice Film Festival did say much about the film’s timeliness and quality.  

Ai, of course, appears in his work.  Sometimes we see him in front of the camera, engaging in conversation with refugees, and at other times, he walks around as if trying to make sense of his present scenario or scouting for a potential sound bite.  Although I like to believe his intentions were pure and good, I can’t quite shake off the feeling that he could have been assuming—and in one scene in particular involving a sly exchange of passports between himself and a Syrian refugee—a tad too much self-importance.  

In any case, that doesn’t take away the film’s important concerns, though one could argue that too much of a filmmaker's or artist’s presence may render a work less powerful than it should be.  Human Flow remains to be an essential viewing for all, especially those who wield enough power to change the world for the better.  A recommended double-bill with Gianfranco Rosi’s Golden Berlin Bear-winning Fire at Sea (2016) might prove especially meaningful.

Verdict:  A largely resonant and highly impactful documentary that brings us uncomfortably close to the worldwide refugee crisis.




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