A Personal Note on Human Flow: A Film by Ai Weiwei

I want the right of life, of the leopard at the spring, of the seed splitting open – I want the right of the first man.”
Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet’s Hymn to life, quoted in Human Flow.

Image Source: Human Flow Official Website

After finally watching the film “Human Flow” by Ai Weiwei, I was left pondering with what I have in my current state, what I presumed I deserve to have, and what was left to say. I didn’t know where to start with this writing as these issues have often moved me, but the scale of this film has once again significantly reminded and overwhelmed me. I just had to put them into words as a way to translate my emotions and understanding.

Human Flow was filmed across 23 countries, dealing with refugee's experience of displacement, migration, and cultural discrimination. Ai’s constant appearance in the film (which was not originally intended but surfaced to be relevant and included during the post-production process as mentioned in an interview) closes the ‘border’ between the filmmaker and the subject, a sense of inclusiveness and empathy was genuinely felt rather than intrusion. Ai exchanged conversations with the refugees, gave a hand at the shore of Greece during the incoming refugees by boat, took long walks with them in the attempt to cross the border, grilled meat skewers in a refugee camp, had a hair cut trimmed by one of the men, and many journeys he and his team took to uncover the outburst events that took place at that time. There wasn’t a linear narrative throughout the film and the event sequences go back and forth drawing us to see parallel similarities of distinctive groups of refugees.

Image Source: Human Flow Official Website
There were elements of portraiture throughout Ai’s film where refugees were facing directly at the camera with a close-up shot of their face, some in full bodies. The camera shoots long and still scenes, while some were filmed with the camera panning across giving us an overall glance of the people. It was at that moment I felt that Ai was probably confronting with ideas of gazing and surveillance, of mirroring, of all the dilemmas one would have struggled to justify one’s self and positioning when coming across another being.

Image Source: Human Flow Official Website

As an audience, I stared at the screen gazing straight at these refugees, harmless and effortless. Some of them were shown being at ease; others wouldn’t hide their discomfort. As time goes by in the long gaze, ‘I’ became more aware of myself. The ‘me’ before the screen, faced with my own lens of looking and thoughts about myself, about humanity, while ‘you’ struggle to meet the basic rights of a human being. I felt the urge to turn away, almost like a natural tendency to not look right into the face of someone who is suffering.

Image Source: Human Flow Official Website

During the walk where refugees make their way to cross the border in Europe only to find it surrounded with fence and barbed wire, the filming camera was placed above the refugees, and in many scenes where drone was deployed hovering across people and makeshifts camps, we see fluidity, patterns, resonating with the title of the film with the use of word 'flow'. To me, it suggests the core of what Ai also attempts to address, that it is not the result of migration we should deal with only, but the history and cause behind all these movements.

We all know that Ai’s position being a political refugee in China, to have experienced exile and detention, living without his passport for 4 years, all of which has deepen his empathy where he establishes a profound relationship to the status and subject of a refugee. At one point, he exchanged his passport with a refugee and said, “I respect you and I respect your passport.” Even though at the face of impossibility, I sensed solidarity and comfort.

Ai in DW Documentary also stated that, knowing his work has an effect and could be useful in some ways; he recognises the boundaries and uncertainty on how his work may help the refugees themselves. Something that artist, activist, ethnographers, social workers often find it hard to dismiss the question, "Who benefits from it?" On a personal note, I really appreciate how this film has brought me partial visual access to places that I will possibly not being able to be granted to with my passport, the temporary places people have lived, have been evacuated, or still stranded, to view the vast migration of our times through his cinematic lens, to be reminded that all of us are constantly on the move at different level, and these people are just as vulnerable as us.

The more immune you are to people’s suffering, that’s very dangerous. It’s critical for us to maintain this humanity.” 
Princess Dana Firas of Jordan in Human Flow

Film and Image Official Link: https://www.humanflow.com/
Other sources:
Buder, E (2017, Oct 14). 'Humanity Is Subjective', The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/10/ai-wei-wei-human-flow/542556/
DW Documentary (2017, June 21) Ai Weiwei drifting - art, awareness and the refugee crisis. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MkcTI00_uw


You may also be interested in