Human Flow, in which Chinese artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei documents ongoing refugee crises around the world, is designed to be experienced on a big screen. Ai uses staggering landscape shots and dynamic low-angle compositions to frame his subjects against great expanses of sky, and when he shoots people in close-up, he excludes almost anything that might distract from their faces or bodies, rendering them monumental. The effect of this large-scale imagery is twofold: It conveys the immense number of human beings that have been displaced in the 2010s—as many, if not more, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, than the number of people displaced by World War II. Moreover, the imagery encourages viewers to adopt a global perspective in considering the subject matter.
Near the beginning of the film, Ai cuts from an overhead shot of a solitary bird flying across an ocean to another overhead shot of a raft filled with refugees—an invitation to take a bird’s-eye view of events and consider the big picture. From there, he presents short profiles of refugees (from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, Burma, and sub-Saharan Africa) and the people who help them in more than a dozen different countries (including Jordan, Greece, Bangladesh, and Turkey); by never focusing on one location for long, Ai draws attention to the similarities between refugees everywhere. Some of the transitions are inspired by geography (at one point Ai cuts from an interview with an Iraqi refugee in Greece to a profile of Syrians living in a refugee camp in Iraq); other times, Ai edits together material shot in disparate locations if it shares a similar mood. The film is structured rather like a poem, one observation flowing into the next.
One can easily get lost in all the statistics Ai presents or lose count of all the places he visits, but that seems to be the point of Human Flow. Ai wants viewers to think of refugee crises as a single issue facing all humanity; discerning the specific details is less important than recognizing the terror refugees feel when they’re trying to cross borders or the dehumanization they experience when going through the legal procedures required to secure lodging in a foreign nation. Despite the heavy subject matter, Ai finds reason for hope, sharing scenes of refugees as they find safe living spaces in their adopted countries. Still, he argues that even more people are going to be displaced in the coming years and that the current efforts by stable nations to host refugees aren’t enough to tackle a problem this vast. v