Director:  Ai Weiwei,
Watched on:  iTunes,
Rating:  4.5/5.  


I was initially skeptical of The Human Flow, the Chinese artist Weiwei’s documentary about the global refugee crisis. The soaring drone footage I’d seen in a trailer looked too impressive, as if this was another superficial celebrity art piece capitalizing on human tragedy. At a running time of 2 hours and 25 minutes, it also sounded self-indulgent and unnecessary. How many more stories do we need about this epic tragedy, covered in countless articles and photo essays, before we become comfortably numb? After finishing this doc, I came to the conclusion that we certainly don’t need another film about the subject matter. The Human Flow is the definitive document of one of mankind’s most abysmal failures.

Weiwei relies on drone cinematography in a way most films don’t. It captures the sweep and sheer numbers of the refugee crisis, a massive migration of human bodies driven from their homes by terrorism, war, climate change, and impending starvation. The aerial sequences form the squares of a vivid checkerboard of misery, with people scurrying like ants through drought-scarred deserts or flooded deltas. The scale is breathtaking, and the desperation is enhanced by this God’s eye point-of-view. Where most drones are used as gimmicks, unmotivated by any narrative integrity, dropped into sequences because they simply look cool, the drone in The Human Flow is a character, an astonished witness to calamity.

When we come down to earth, Weiwei makes another important visual decision. His on-the-ground subjects–in Bangladesh, Italy, Mexico and 20 other countries–are often filmed with an iPhone or a Go Pro, with the artist himself holding the camera, asking questions from behind the device. The hard cuts from smooth gliding panoramas of bodies in motion to shaky, digitally noisy close-ups of individuals is not as jarring as you might expect. Instead, it is humbling (he even includes selfies taken with migrants). As a filmmaker and as an artist, Weiwei is not a slave to tools. The message of the moment is what’s important, and it is expressed in the most available medium. In his choice of an iPhone you can imagine he pulled one from his pocket while on location and decided on the spot, “Why not? This works.”

Formal consistency is an elastic element in this very moving, very powerful film. Contrast it with the stifling, observational approach practiced in Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, in which parallel stories set in the migrant landing zone of Lampedusa failed to merge, discouraging any emotional connection with its characters. Contrast it also, favorably, with Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS, the definitive documentary (do we need another?) on the global disaster of Middle Eastern wars, and one also not beholden to a confining formalist technique.

The Human Flow contains conventional footage as well, of tent cities, border patrols, rescue boats. Weiwei is ceratinly aware of the commercial potential of his material. He includes shots of himself looking concerned, sympathetic, engaged (he’s got a world-renowned artist’s ego after all). But this always risky strategy tends to diminish our involvement.

He also tries to inject, wishfully perhaps, some uplift into the film. The news is not all dire, he seems to say. His film depicts the spiritual resilience of refugees who remain hopeful; dazed but thankful that there is indeed some compassion left in the world. But still, one can’t help come away from The Human Flow with a sense of civilization’s impending apocalypse.