Everyone paying attention to the news knows of the displaced populations the world over. Ai Weiwei's documentary Human Flow gives a distinctive, empathetic face to the global crisis even as the statistics, periodically seen in text on screen, accumulate with a powerful force: an estimated 65 million forcibly displaced individuals, the most since World War II.
Equally haunting are the quotations from contemporary and ancient poets and philosophers, also superimposed over the footage shot in more than twenty countries and forty camps. From Syria and Iran, Palestine and Myanmar, Kenya and Afghanistan they come in droves, seeking peaceful existence. And yet, as Human Flow makes clear, while refugees increase, resources diminish.
A well-known Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei shows a heightened sensitivity to the dire circumstances depicted. In fact, for this year's Telluride screening of "Human Flow," Ai wrote that he felt he grew up a refugee in his own country as an activist who suffered his own government's repression including being detained and beaten, leading eventually to his self-exile. Here Ai Weiwei is an unobtrusive, essentially non-speaking but comforting presence throughout the film, appearing occasionally during interviews or capturing what looks like cellphone video.
Ironically, his footage and that of eleven cinematographers is beautiful: rafts packed with men, women and children emerge from the fog at Lesvos, Greece; dozens of African refugees huddle in their golden space blankets; masses of the dispossessed surge forward, walking down a rural road. Drone footage illustrates the magnitude of the refugee tent camps and, from their aerial perspective, project an eerie calm that belies desperate struggles. As one Afghan woman says, "No one leaves their country lightly," and yet refugees average twenty-six years displaced from their homes.
As tragically serious as this is, the kindness of aid workers and the spirit of the displaced persons are inspirational in this calm, haunting documentary. Human Flow is in English and with English subtitles and screens at Landmark's Tivoli Cinema.