Ai Weiwei and the Crisis of Our Time

The dissident Chinese artist spent a year traveling to 23 countries to make Human Flow, a documentary on refugees.

There are times that make a person wish we lived under a unified global government, or at least that the United Nations had teeth.

The current migration of human being out of the Middle East and the northern half of Africa is one such time, and Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has illustrated the gravity of the situation in Human Flow, a 140-minute Amazon Studios documentary that details his visits to 23 countries over the course of a year to show the unwilling West just how serious the crisis is. An episodic, almost narrative-free nightmare inversion of the 19th-century Grand Tour, it anchors itself on the periphery of Europe while paying respect to the plight of the far-flung peoples like the Rohingya escaping Myanmar and the travesty that is the western edge of the U.S.-Mexican border.

Throughout, intertitles with quotes from poets of the Arabian Golden Age and the 20th century frame a mass movement of 65 million people — equivalent to the population of Iran or of California and Texas combined. Vilified as terrorists, sympathizers, or spongers, these uprooted people have frequently risked everything to traverse the open ocean in search of survival and a better life. The Global North’s callousness is criminal. Whether it’s because they’re insulated from suffering or their hands are tied, the bureaucrats and high-ranking NGO officials whose job it is to help migrants integrate often seem unable to move beyond a generically sympathetic jargon. Meanwhile, beautiful footage shot from drones grounds the suffering of any individuals profiled — and could make George Steinmetz obsolete.

Some viewers of Human Flow might be surprised just how Westernized — and optimistic — many of these migrants are. One young father, who wears a baseball cap, says in English, “We will reach a country that can help us, and we will return.” But mostly, the film details an endless waiting. Thousands of people who’ve fled the Middle East wish desperately to reach Germany or Sweden, only to find that a series of less-affluent nations in Southeastern Europe have sealed their borders. (Hungary, in particular, seems almost as paranoid and unforgiving as Trump-era America.)

Apart from the tension and the boredom are more pressing concerns: hunger after days spent adrift on a raft in the Mediterranean, and diarrhea from illness. It is our indifference to this unbearability, Ai says, that is the receiving nations’ true sin. We effectively luxuriate in our ability to ignore the crisis, which has been caused in no small part by the United States’ catastrophic interventions in the Middle East.

“We all understand,” he says. “People are dying. Women and children are bombed by drones, and we pretend we don’t know it.”

Speaking at the Fairmont the morning of his Oct. 3 appearance before the Commonwealth Club, Ai says that the 900 hours of raw footage contained 600 interviews, the bulk of which will be published at some future date (either in book form, or online). Noting that the sheer volume of humans — people in boats or rafts, people coming ashore, people marching across wintry countrysides — is almost overwhelming, he agrees that his own presence in the film is almost ghostly. While that was a function of the vast quantity of footage, it’s also by design.

“Many of my appearances are very casual,” he says. “I think it makes the film more comfortable to look at, rather than give it a historical perspective, to be some kind of a historical channel or something. … Still, it takes just one individual to give some kind of interpretation.”

Apart from Hungary, whose abrupt turn toward illiberal authoritarianism has been well-documented, the most fascinating country Human Flow touches on is probably Lebanon, a tiny nation whose population is almost 25 percent refugees. Ai notes that the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean have historically been tolerant of outsiders, owing to the region’s history of nomadism. But even if tribal divisions have deepened, there are people who recognize that mutual acceptance is the only way forward.

“As they said, ‘We have to forget about the past,’ ” Ai says. “Even deeply in our hearts, we may hate each other, but this isn’t going to work. It has proven not to work.”

Amid all the footage of people living in tents alongside railroad tracks, there are occasional tender moments, as when someone cuts Ai’s hair and when he cuts someone else’s. This stems from the significance of hair in Chinese culture.

“Hair is very symbolic,” Ai says. “We think of the hair as a part of your body that’s given to you by your parents, and it’s property of your human dignity. So to have the the trust to let a refugee cut it, or to cut their hair, to touch them, to make them have this joyous moment — it’s important in moviemaking, because I want to feel I’m part of them.”

While it’s unfair to expect a single documentary to encompass every aspect of the migrant crisis — and sex trafficking is among the many areas that go unaddressed — there are scenes that could be read as exploitative or otherwise unnecessary. In particular, there is one scene in which an Iranian woman with her back turned to the camera throws up into a bucket. It scans as a bit gratuitous, but Ai says the woman’s insistence on being interviewed overruled the desires of his production team, who wished to defer to prevailing social mores (and feared including her might arouse suspicion in that particular camp).

She had asked to be filmed from behind, Ai says, and not because she was loath to be seen vomiting, but because she had family back in Iran and couldn’t risk anything happening to them. She had been in legal limbo for a long time, and needed her story told no matter what.

“After 60 days [in the camp], nobody ever comes to them, even to say ‘How are you?’ This totally hurt them,” Ai says. “They’re not totally hurt by the wartime but by this civilized society; people look at them like nothing. They are people with dignity, not beggars, they have a very high moral and dignified understanding of human beings — higher than us because they are religious.”

It’s a humanitarian approach, but Ai thinks in terms of artistry as well.

“In the whole film, her voice is most beautiful voice,” he says. “If you listen to the voice, it’s amazing.”

Human Flow, opens Friday, Oct. 20 at the Landmark Clay Theatre, 2261 Fillmore St.,


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