In beautiful documentary ‘Human Flow’ artist Ai Weiwei shows humanity of refugee crisis

By Sean P. Means

In taking on an international crisis that’s happening in slow motion, the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s documentary “Human Flow” captures the plight of millions of refugees around the world — and does so with images that are by turns disturbing and luminous.

The facts of the refugee crisis are stark. Nearly 66 million people are, at this moment, forcibly displaced from their homes by war, persecution, poverty and the aftermath of climate change. They range from the millions who fled the civil war in Syria to Mexicans and Central Americans trying to cross the border into the United States, from the half-million Rohingya Muslims in fleeing “ethnic cleansing” in Myanmar to the 1.3 million Palestinians living stateless in the Gaza strip.

Ai is a displaced person of sorts — he splits his time between Berlin and his home city of Beijing, where he has faced persecution from the Chinese government over his politically charged art — so he relates to the people he meets in the 23 countries he visits in this film. At refugee camps in Greece, Kenya, Turkey, Bangladesh and other places, Ai talks to men, women and children from all walks of life, all with one thing in common: Things got so bad that they chose leaving over dying.

The movie goes inside some of the places where tension over refugees is boiling over. Filmmakers ride along with rescue ships leaving ports in Greece and Italy, as crews try to pull overloaded boats to safety — and sometimes don’t make it in time. They go to Greece’s border with Macedonia, which has put up razor-wire fences to block refugees’ migration. They follow Hungarian police and military as they crack down harshly on refugees who try to cross into the country. They watch animal handlers transport a tiger that somehow got trapped in Gaza, becoming (in one of the movie’s more controversial passages) an unwitting metaphor for Palestinians cut off from the world by Israeli and Egyptian blockades.

Ai sometimes puts himself in the middle of the action. He gets his hair cut in a refugee camp. He and a Syrian woman pull out their phones and compare pictures of their cats. He and a Syrian man temporarily swap passports and talk about how their lives would be different if they were in the other’s place.

That sense of human connection is what raises “Human Flow” from simply a treatise on refugee issues. Ai and his crews focus on the people who often spend years as refugees, trying to create a bit of normalcy in a frighteningly abnormal situation.

Being an artist, Ai fills “Human Flow” with moments of beauty within these hardships. He intersperses harsh news headlines (on a ticker that sometimes runs across the screen) with quotes from Syrian poets, Muslim scripture and John F. Kennedy, among others. And he frames some delicate images, of refugee boats in moonlight and displaced people wrapped in gold mylar blankets like Christmas presents, that are as lovely as they are heartbreaking.