When we talk about ‘the refugee crisis’, which one do we mean? Is it the flow of people from north Africa to Italy on death-trap boats? The perilous journeys made overland from the Middle East through Turkey, or across water to Greece? The 'jungle' at Calais? The makeshift town at Templehof in Berlin? And what about the crises in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Macedonia and Iraq? It's this headswirling reality that drives Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s mountainous, sprawling, chaotic doc. He aims not to unpick one, or a few, of these localised nightmares but to capture the global horror of the current reality of being a refugee in just one film.
It’s impossible, of course, and you could be forgiven for worrying that Ai is being glib by giving little time to individuals and individual crises by hopping around the globe. But as he moves from country to country, appearing on camera himself as a curious, engaged observer, mostly unobtrusively, and always liberally supplying statistics, newspaper quotes, talking heads and less formal ground-level interactions with refugees, his campaigning film has a combined power that’s overwhelming and instructive.
‘Human Flow’ is rooted in specific current national and political situations, yet it offers a portrait of forced human movement and suffering that feels almost timeless. Anyone expecting an artist’s film in style and ideas might be surprised: there’s something conservative, even artless, about the way the film moves from story to story, leans on the wisdom of interviewees from the UN and other NGOs and employs ample TV-style drone footage (alongside more artful photography, especially during a chapter set in and around Mosul). Ai himself must know that look-at-me style and abstracts don't suit the seriousness of the subject. This is angry, thoughtful, straightforward activist journalism - blunt, simple and impossible to ignore.