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Review: Human Flow is Ai Weiwei’s call to action on the refugee crisis

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s documentary Human Flow is about the refugee crisis with the artist travelling to 23 countries.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

3 out of 4 stars

Human Flow
Written by
Ai Weiwei
Directed by
Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei's new documentary about the global refugee crisis ends with a remarkable aerial image of all the orange life jackets abandoned by migrants on a Greek beach after they have successfully crossed the Mediterranean in small boats. Giant in scope, almost abstract in vision, it's a shot that reminds you that the Chinese dissident and exiled art star is first of all a visual artist. Human Flow ventures further into pure documentary than Ai's previous work in that field but it's still an art film, with a circular rhythm to its scenes, lingering imagery and a prolonged running time of 140 minutes.

As Ai travels from the beaches on the Greek island of Lesbos up to the Macedonian border where refugees huddle in tents in the rain, then to a crossing point in Jordan, to the Gaza strip and to the Mexican-American border, he often inserts himself into the action. He shows himself getting his hair cut in one camp, grabbing a bucket and tissues for a weeping refugee so upset she seems likely to vomit and politely taking instructions from a U.S. border guard.

This is the approach that got him in so much trouble in 2016 when he depicted himself lying on the beach at Lesbos in a photograph that reproduced the shocking news image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee whose body had washed up on a Turkish beach. That may have seemed sensationalist or exploitative but as he deploys himself again and again in this film, the point becomes increasingly clear. He briefly exchanges his precious passport, withheld by Chinese authorities for four years before his 2015 departure for Berlin, with that of a Syrian refugee, trading his freedom and wealth for desperation and hopelessness. We are all equally human, his démarche says, as he literally stands by the refugees.

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Viewers may wish for more background – Ai makes little distinction between crowds of single young men arriving from sub-Saharan Africa and families on the move from Syria – and references to an exodus caused by climate change are not fully explained. Instead, Ai simply bears witness in a film that, like many of his sculptural pieces, establishes a creative tension between its giant scale and its individual pieces. That is what impresses itself most on the eye and the mind: the sheer size of the migration, according to the doc unparalleled since the Second World War. Yet for all the mass of misery it films, Human Flow does not give rise to desperation: It is most of all a call to action.

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