“Being a refugee is the most pervasive kind of cruelty that can be exercised against a human being.”
Shared with much feeling onscreen, this sentiment defines the award-winning 2017 documentary, Human Flow, which closely tracks the lives and experiences of refugees from around the world.
Human Flow is an unusual work of art, which utilizes unusual techniques throughout to set a very different tone than other films in the genre. That’s fitting because the director is the world-renowned Chinese artist, dissident, and occasional exile, Ai Weiwei, who takes care to resist preaching or limited binary interpretations. This is the rarest of documentary movies because it doesn’t even have a voice over.
Instead, Weiwei skilfully blends stunning cinematography and carefully interspersing scenes of refugee life around the world, with no music or other distracting effects. There are interviews with a number of subjects: from Rohingya to Senegalese to Palestinians, but virtually no presence of the film-makers; a daring choice which enhances the real-life drama of these human beings in transition; often crammed together in refugee camps and settlements from Greece to Bangladesh.
Here, refugee life can be seen through its darkest moments, including violent attacks on camps. If a refugee started crying during an interview, the camera kept rolling, forcing viewers to see them as the real people they are, beyond the flickering demands of today’s attention spans. All this yields a perspective sorely lacking in today’s world, an immersive experience into an uncomfortable world inhabited by huge numbers of people with nothing to lose.
On the other hand, exactly what makes this documentary so unique is also rather repetitive. With the camera rolling from interview to interview, with most refugees saying similar things, some viewers could begin to lose concentration. One can understand Weiwei’s choices, as he was clearly trying to outline the great connections between all refugees across time periods and locations, but it has to be admitted that one result was that the majority of student viewers fell asleep during our viewing here at Woodstock
In summation, this documentary is not for the casual fan. But for the critical viewer, who seeks more out of a film than constant stimulation, this film is informative, unique and thought-provoking in many ways.
Edited by Nalin Mahajan
Image source: Lisson Gallery