For his grandiose film about the worldwide refugee crisis, Human Flow, one of director/artist Ai Weiwei’s most lasting images is an overhead shot of thousands of discarded lifejackets. Preceding this moment, Weiwei has shown hundreds of immigrants trying to come to a new land by boat, and shown the potential loss that can occur from such daring. These lifejackets could’ve been thrown aside by people safely arriving after a daunting journey, or they could’ve washed ashore from those who didn’t survive. For Weiwei, it’s not the individual stories that each person who donned one of these vests has to tell that interests him: it’s the sheer scope. As powerful as the imagery Weiwei captures might be and how overwhelming the global issue of refugees is, it’s that lack of individuality and Weiwei’s macro viewpoint that makes Human Flow difficult to absorb.
With Human Flow, Weiwei travels to over twenty countries in an attempt to show just the sheer scope of the world’s refugees, with more than 65 million people displaced throughout the world. Weiwei never stays in one country for too long, avoids narration, and his interview subjects are given one scene before they’re never seen again. Because of this, Weiwei is far more interested in the visual interpretations of his idea, rather than preaching the problems of closed borders and the lost trying to find a home.
Through the occasional interview, Weiwei presents the idea that supplanting so many people causes a lack of individuality. The number of people is so great and without jobs, money or proper schooling, these people almost don’t exist. Yet despite the intentions of Weiwei to shine a light on these people, his approach to this issue only reinforces the uniformity of these large groups.
Weiwei will often approach a new area by showing the various refugee camps that have sprung up around it. These vary from popup tents dangerously close to trains, to more permanent living areas where people have lived in for decades. When Weiwei goes within these area, he showcases the relatable aspect of his mission. Surprisingly, some of the most humanizing moments of Human Flow come from large groups of people just sitting around, staring at their phones.
Weiwei’s approach to the refugee crisis over Human Flow’s two-and-a-half hour runtime is simply that this issue affects almost every country, each with the same problems of closed borders and too few resources. But by jumping quickly from one camp and country to another, the lack of humanity that should be inherent in the immigrant story washes away into a blur of globe-trotting and news chyrons presenting the area’s crisis in bite-sized chunks.
In one scene on the U.S.-Mexico border, Human Flow presents its thesis and its own problems deftly. Weiwei is stopped by border patrol, who state that he cannot just walk across the invisible line splitting the two countries, marked only by a wooden plank. Sure, he can, but the government won’t allow it. When asked how long Weiwei will be filming on the border, he states “maybe 30-40 minutes.” The problems on the border are obvious and easy to fix, and there’s just too much to cover to spend an abundance of time in any one place. By avoiding the individual struggle and focusing on the wider repercussions, Weiwei turns his good-natured objective into an issue of numbers and grand scale, rather than a matter that moves the heart.