‘Human Flow’ doco reminds us of our humanity

Review: Human Flow  (M)

Renowned Chinese artist and activist, Ai Weiwei, directs this ground-breaking documentary that captures two years of filming across 23 countries and 40 refugee camps. Human flow shares an unabridged look at the ‘why’ as well as the disconcerting reality for 65 million forcibly displaced people around the world.

Earlier this year Ai Weiwei, who was once a child refugee himself, wrote in the Guardian that:

“The refugee crisis is not about refugees, rather, it is about us. Our prioritisation of financial gain over people’s struggle for the necessities of life is the primary cause of much of this crisis.”

For those not on the ground working directly with people fleeing persecution, the news report,  images of war or boats filled with men, women and children, only tells half the story. It is easy to become desensitized, to see people not as a group of individuals but as a faceless mass. In this process there is a loss of empathy and losing that piece of humanity is dangerous.

Ai Weiwei understands this, so with Human Flow he turns the lens back to the people. He replasters the face back on the millions of people trying to survive and find peace. Faces that have, at times, been stripped away by politicians’ fear-mongering and dehumanizing labels such as “boat people”. At first, it’s not images of drowned bodies or sounds of howling cries shown on screen but instead people looking solemnly straight down the barrel of the camera lens. The stare off between the onscreen woman, child or man and the cinema audience, is one minute too long – forcing the audience to really look at these individuals. It’s a reintroduction. To look at the people who are migrating or fleeing prosecution not as blurred faces but real human beings wanting what we all need and are entitled to: human dignity and security.

The documentary mainly focuses on the Syrian, Afghani, Iraqi refugee crisis before the Human Flow trail takes us to Bangladesh and the plight of the persecuted Rohingya people. The trail then leads to Kenya, where lies the largest refugee camp in the world and finally to the Mexican and United States border. The journey shows that why we’re seeing the largest influx of refugees since the Second World War, is not just due to war but also climate change and political instability.

Human Flow touches on the hypocrisy of  the international community having human rights and refugee conventions only for countries to default to policies/actions that directly go against these conventions. Protecting borders is needed however that doesn’t warrant the mistreatment of people seeking asylum. The documentary hits home the realisation that the difference between us living in peace and those searching for peace is the life lottery and just as easily, the roles could be reversed. It makes you wonder, if leaders and wider society remembered that more often, then how would Australia’s policies for people seeking asylum differ?

With some of the interviews filmed on a smart phone, Ai Weiwei and his team including co-producers Chin-chin Yap and Hino Deckert, captured something truly breathtaking and that’s human resilience and hope.

Imagine surviving bombs the Mediterranean Sea just to see fences and closed borders. Or watching two brothers crying and consoling each other; promising that were one goes the other will follow. Singing and smiling through shivers after reaching land or boarding a rescue boat, symbolized a second chance. Human Flow showed that in the most desperate circumstances somehow there is still a strong sense of hope and faith.  Now all that’s needed is the world’s compassion.

Director Ai Weiwei will be in Australia for the Human Flow release in cinemas March 15. Ai Weiwei will also be at the Sydney Biennale with his exhibition Law of the Journey. The display will be at Cockatoo Island March 16 to June 11 2018.


Melissa Stewart

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