Venice 2017: Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow

On Film / The Daily — Sep 1, 2017

“There are any number of unforgettable images in Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow, the most necessary and comprehensive documentary to date about our planet’s current refugee crisis,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, “but the most indelible of them all is borrowed from a movie about a very different humanitarian failure. For 1956’s Night and Fog, Alain Resnais ventured into the haunted ruins of concentration camps Auschwitz and Majdanek, training his camera on the evidence that had been left behind. A still ocean of women’s hair. A mountain of empty shoes, spilling through the rooms of a building like a flood. . . . In Human Flow, the film’s famous artist-director shoots a massive heap of abandoned lifejackets from above, the camera lifting into the sky to reveal hundreds (or thousands) of the vests piled on top of each other like an endless orange sea. It’s the kind of moment that epitomizes why this is one of the few documentaries to use drone cinematography in a way that doesn’t smack of vanity.”

“Ai Weiwei ventures to over 20 countries, traveling across the globe to places as far afield as Thailand, the United States, Mexico, Lebanon, Malaysia and Kenya,” writes Kaleem Aftab at Cineuropa. The artist “chooses to overwhelm the viewer through the sheer number of camps and streets in the world housing refugees. As he travels from country to country, and from camp to camp, it's the breadth and scope of the crisis that is devastating.”

“That patchwork construction can make it hard to determine exactly which particular crisis you’re in at any given moment—the colors of land, skin and sky are often all you have to go on—though Ai would no doubt argue the lack of delineation is part of his wider point,” suggests the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin. “But a greater story does gradually cohere, one that imbues the crisis with a fresh weight and significance, even as the film’s stately drone shots of teeming camps and displaced peoples snaking their way across unfamiliar landscapes finds a visual beauty in their resilience.”

Human Flow is basically Refugees for Dummies,” argues Jay Weissberg in Variety. “Yes, Ai stands #withrefugees, which is an admirable Twitter keyword yet by making this a self-described ‘personal journey,’ he distracts from the real issues and turns the documentary into just another famous person’s endorsement of the latest humanitarian bandwagon.”

“While the film makes a direct plea to the EU to stay true to its charter on refugees (and gets very specific about deals with Turkey), Ai’s on-screen presence, talking and taking photographs, perhaps for one of his site-specific installation pieces, is more of a gentle face and a hug than a jeremiad,” writes Jordan Hoffman for the Guardian. “Policy-minded viewers may bristle at Ai’s approach. ‘All refugees in crisis should be treated equally, but perhaps all crises that create refuges should not,’ is an argument that is easier to make when viewing from 30,000 feet.”

Screen’s Lee Marshall finds Human Flow to be “a surprisingly ‘regular’ film from an artist known for his defiant run-ins with Chinese authorities and his audacious contemporary art installations (including a spate of recent refugee-themed works). Cadenced by interviews with experts and aid officials, peppered with fact-filled captions (some running in news-feed mode along the bottom of the screen), Human Flow is at heart an immersive world tour . . . In its structure and argument, it is not an arc so much as a mosaic—something that may test viewers looking for a single take on a crisis which, we are informed, has reached Second World War proportions, with around 65 million currently displaced.”

In the Hollywood Reporter, Deborah Young argues that “this is an ambitious cinematic leap forward for Ai Weiwei, who has previously shot videos and installations on urban infrastructures and who has addressed social themes like world migration in his artwork, always in striking and original ways that force the viewer to see the obvious through new eyes. Here there is more sweep, less insight.”

At CineVue, John Bleasdale notes that Human Flow is a “timely film, as the debate has shifted with the surge in movement from one of occasional sympathy—spurred by images like that of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned child on the Turkish beach—to a callusing of sensibility which has its political expression in the rise of the far-right and its physical expression in the rise of the border walls and fences. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, only eleven countries had such physical barriers marking their borders. Now that number is seventy.”

“I became involved with the subject of refugees because I am conscious of how these people have been mistreated, neglected and displaced,” Ai tells Variety’s Nick Vivarelli. “I know what it is like to be viewed as an outcast. The current-day displacement of people is the largest since the end of World War II. It’s a global issue and one which tests the resolve of developed nations to uphold human rights. I am eager to understand how those values—which form the foundation of democracy and freedom—are protected and how they have been violated.”

Update, 9/2: Time Out’s Dave Calhoun: “Anyone expecting an artist’s film in style and ideas might be surprised: there’s something conservative, even artless, about the way the film moves from story to story . . . This is angry, thoughtful, straightforward activist journalism—blunt, simple and impossible to ignore.”

Update, 9/3: “Whilst Human Flow does perhaps at times seem to lean a little heavily on the voices of rousing experts,” writes Thomas Humphrey at ScreenAnarchy, “it does stop repeatedly to take the time to hear the thoughts and feelings of migrants; and whether they be the voices of stranded survivors in Greece or persecuted Rohingya in Myanmar, or war sufferers in Syria or Sudan, what they have to say is an absolute shot of emotion to the heart.”

Update, 9/17: “All day long,” Ai tells the Guardian’s Xan Brooks, “the media ask me if I have shown the film to the refugees: ‘When are the refugees going to see the film?’ But that’s the wrong question. The purpose is to show it to people of influence; people who are in a position to help and who have a responsibility to help. The refugees who need help—they don’t need to see the film. They need dry shoes. They need soup.”

Updates, 10/7: “Whether he will continue making commercial films remains up in the air,” reports Deborah Vankin for the Los Angeles Times. “Ai currently has eight solo exhibitions in museums and galleries around the world, including the Public Art Fund’s Good Fences Make Good Neighbors in New York, for which he’ll erect more than 300 works across the city’s five boroughs beginning Oct. 12. The large-scale, site-specific installations, documentary photographs, lamppost banners, ‘public interventions’ and other works will use the image of the security fence, exploring how it divides people.” Ted Loos has more in the New York Times.

Vankin adds that, “with filmmaker Wang Fen, he co-curated the Guggenheim Museum’s documentary film series, Turn It On: China On Film, 2000–2017, which opens Oct. 13.”

Updates, 10/11: “Ai’s approach occasionally tips too far toward aestheticizing a dire situation,” finds Noel Murray at the A.V. Club. “He makes shanty towns and long slogs through the wilderness look so pretty that some viewers may be lulled. Even with the alarming newspaper headlines and statistical factoids that pop up on the screen periodically, the documentary at times feels removed from actual experiences.”

But the Village Voice’s Alan Scherstuhl argues that the film “forgoes the familiar technique of tracking the journey of a handful of sympathetic figures” because “Ai’s vision is more expansive. He’s insisting that, rather than worry about the couple of refugees that filmmakers or journalists have introduced us to, we carry the moral burden to push for a solution for all 65 million of them (and the millions more to come, displaced by climate change).”

Update, 10/12: “There are moments in Human Flow,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, “when it can be hard to see the individuals who make up the roiling, surging rivers onscreen. This difficulty in isolating specific people—really seeing them as sovereign beings rather than as an undifferentiated mass—is crucial to the meaning of the documentary.” It “tracks the here and there of people whose relentless ebbing and flowing make startlingly visible what news headlines repeatedly suggest: that ours is an age of ceaseless churn with no calm in sight.”

Updates, 10/14: “When pulling back to global analysis, Human Flow skews to the familiar, scattershot and politically skimpy, stretching itself thin over the particular dilemmas of host countries with different political cultures,” writes Ella Taylor for NPR. “Human Flow is at its most potent, and poignant, when it scales down to the human level. At over two hours long, the litany of pain and suffering can be numbing.”

Ariston Anderson has five questions for Ai at Filmmaker; and Emily Bader talks with him for the Atlantic.

Update, 10/16:Human Flow is a film of profound empathy,” writes Matthew Lucas at In Review Online. “Ai is nothing if not a citizen of the world, and his goal here is to understand an experience of broken humanity on a scale never before seen in human history—and to bring that understanding to his audience. His film is raw, clear-eyed, but at the same time gently surreal, and ultimately hopeful.”

Updates, 10/22: “I really question our ability to imagine ourselves in other people’s conditions,” Ai tells IndieWire’s David Ehrlich. “And if we don’t start doing that, I don’t think humanity has any hope.”

And he tells Stephen Saito: “I never had any ambitions to make a big film, but it’s like you throw a string into the water and then you pull it and it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s heavy.’”

Updates, 10/24: “In the end,” writes Sarah Aziza in the Nation, “the film’s primary argument might be summed up in the word magnitude. The average sojourn of a refugee is 26 years, we are told, and millions of lifetimes are today being lived out in a state of rootlessness and, often, extreme suffering. The walls, fences, and brute force currently used to control this tide are shown to be not only barbaric but futile. Our global proximity is now irreversible, and demands moral responsibility. Our collective destruction or thriving are possibilities bound up in our ability to reckon with the fact that this “flow” cannot be simply staunched, or solved abstractly. The questions posed by this 65 million–person wave are inescapable, and inescapably human.”

LARB Radio Hour co-hosts Eric Newman and Medaya Ocher talk with Ai (34’42”). “The conversation weaves through matters central to 21st century humanity: digital technology, globalization, national identity, economic inequality, climate catastrophes, demagogues, and threats to liberty—as well as more eternal themes like war, beauty, human vulnerability, and how we bear witness to the mystery of existence.”

Update, 10/26: “While the constant stream of jaw-dropping imagery can sometimes feel like a case of Too Much Information, the sheer macro power of the visuals packs a wallop,” finds Andrew Wright in the Stranger.

“I can imagine people being frustrated by Ai’s aesthetic approach,” writes Robert Horton in the Seattle Weekly, “but I’ll bet that many of the film’s moments will prove indelible. What gets exposed in this film is the big picture, the cruelty and absurdity of vast numbers of people, in our technologically advanced world, being dehumanized. Watching the film is like seeing a portrait of the human soul as it is being systematically reduced in size—not the soul of the international refugee, but everybody’s collective soul.”

Update, 11/3: “Ai transforms nightmarish material into a dream we can understand, expressing scope of the world and how artificial boundaries work against human potential, in terms of economies, beliefs and simply, dignity,” writes Ray Pride in Newcity. “Sweeping and swirling, Human Flow puts faces, so many faces, to the great organism that is our home, this teeming globe.”

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