‘The Human Flow’: A film for an age of displacement

Ai Weiwei’s new documentary visually illuminates the global refugee crisis

Towards the end of The Human Flow, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s recent documentary on the global refugee crisis, former Syrian astronaut and now refugee Muhammed Faris shares a revelation. While looking down at the planet from orbit many years ago, he realized that “each human being on earth is a universe.”

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It isn’t long after that Ai presents us with the film’s last and most arresting shot. His camera, affixed to a drone, starts to lift skyward. With altitude, a pile of discarded life jackets is revealed to be a heap, revealed to be a small hill, itself revealed to be large enough to form a feature of topography, each jacket representing the uprooting of one of those human universes.

It’s the film’s imagery that stays with viewers. Migrants stuffing translucent tarps in unsteady frames to fashion a roof. Thermal blankets crinkling around bodies chilled crossing a perilous winter sea. Glints of searchlight off life jacket reflectors confirming a boat packed impossibly dense with migrants in the night.

The images are necessary because The Human Flow does not stay in any one country for long, does not tell a story. Unnarrated, unplotted, the film roves between 23 countries, the only way to capture the scale of a crisis in numbers and breadth few of us can conceive.

Trump makes the ideal president of (but not for) these times, a garish symbol of the arrant callousness that has had to grow endemic for a crisis of this scale to take root and persist.

At the end of 2016, 65.6 million — one of every 113 people on earth — were displaced, either within their country of origin or across borders. It is the highest figure ever recorded.

Scattered through the film are images of impossibilities: of staying in remnants of shelled buildings, homes turned to teetering rubble; of traversing a gate into Macedonia, only a short while ago crossed by a million refugees, now fenced, patrolled, moated with coils of razor wire.

Between these impossibilities are the migrant camps, whether permanent or ad hoc, where so much of the film takes place. And while the camps themselves are diverse, they share something in common. The spaces they occupy are liminal, in-between places equidistantly isolated, if not in miles then possibility, from anywhere anyone seeks to end up. In Greece, tents crowd at the barest edge of tracks along which rail cars bear oil. Inside a sterile German hangar that no one can leave, where dividers make rooms without ceilings, a young teenager complains of mind-numbing boredom. In France, blazes reflecting on their riot shields, police reduce a camp to smoldering ruins overnight; sometimes, even the places between impossibilities become impossible places.

Towards the end of The Human Flow, a U.S. border guard scolds Ai for traversing the invisible line somehow demarcating the United States and Mexico and their uncommonly differing worlds of possibility. In this place where a president hopes to materialize a wall, the scene serves to remind us that Ai was filming during Donald Trump’s political ascension. And in many ways, Trump makes the ideal president of (but not for) these times, a garish symbol of the arrant callousness that has had to grow endemic for a crisis of this scale to take root and persist.

The Human Flow serves as a badly needed reminder of happens when the right to stay and the right to move are denied.

Any cure for such times starts with remembering our common humanity, and Ai’s film humanizes where it can. Smiling children photobomb camera shots. In tears, a young man vows to his brother he’ll follow him anywhere always, whether back to Syria or on to Germany. Reaching shore, joyful migrants sing and dance. But the visuals that might most strongly resonate in the 21st century occur whenever we see migrants checking their smartphones, their faces illuminated by the handheld glow.

Beyond that, Ai’s film doesn’t offer solutions. That’s not its purpose. Rather, it poses a question for us in this age of displacement: should the world respond with closed minds and closed borders or should it embrace compassion, empathy, and rights?

It is worth recalling that the mass displacement that followed the Second World War changed the way the world understood human rights. Perhaps we are due for another such shift. If you can find your way through the paywall, Joseph Nevins’ article “The Right to the World” might offer one way to think about how that could go:

The right to the world … is concerned with the individual (as well as collective) right to access global resources —among them, global space—so as to be able to realize the most basic of human rights: the right to a dignified life. But because this requires changing oneself and changing the world—not least by allowing for freedom of movement, residence, and work across national boundaries—it involves the exercise of collective power to reshape globalization and its associated spatialities.

The right to the world is not just the right to move, Nevins adds, but also to stay. That means that our nations violate human rights not just where they inhibit movement, but where they compel it. Such is the case where our nations sell arms, invade and destabilize others, eliminate protection status, or liberate climate-changing carbon once safely entrapped in stone and earth or fused to sand.

The Human Flow serves as a badly needed reminder of happens when the right to stay and the right to move are denied. Let us hope its images motivate action rather than capture the new human condition.

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