HUMAN FLOW. Ai Weiwei. Directed by Ai Weiwei. 140 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes).
When renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei debuted his latest documentary at the Venice Film Festival last year, it was well positioned to be an enormous success. ‘Human Flow’ tackles the foremost global catastrophe of our time: refugees. This strategy had paid handsomely for Gianfranco Rosi’s ‘Fuocoammare’ (‘Fire at Sea’), another doco that deservedly snared the 2016 Golden Bear at the Berlinale and went on to be nominated for an Oscar. Packaging this subject matter with Weiwei’s stunning visuals and outspoken views on human rights, and it appeared to be a juggernaut, tipped early as one to beat. However, when the film debuted, it received boos in press screenings (one of which I attended), received the second lowest average score from international and Italian critics in attendance, and Weiwei walked away empty handed at the closing ceremony. What went wrong?
Broken apart into a dozen distinct segments, and ‘Human Flow’ has the potential to be an educational primer for this turning point facing humanity, a globetrotting web series or some manner of immersive installation. However, in its feature-length state, what ‘Human Flow’ ironically lacks most is any semblance of flow. At best, it comes across as a summation of the various refugee crises that are occurring around the world today. Working with dozens of camera crews, Weiwei hops between several countries almost at random – Germany, Myanmar, Iraq, Greece, Kenya… In each stop, he records the astonishing mass migrations taking place, or the impoverished conditions in which thousands upon thousands of exiles are living. He witnesses their suffering, but before he delves beyond the admittedly astonishing raw numbers, it’s off to the next warzone. By the time he turns his attention to the US-Mexico border at around the two-hour mark, there were audible groans throughout the Sala Grande.
At worst, the documentary comes across as narcissistic self-promotion; besides a slew of experts from the United Nations and various NGOs, the only recurring figure is that of Weiwei himself. Be it getting mobbed by curious onlookers or serving food in various refugee camps, the director becomes the only unifying tissue between each new country depicted, as though his image alone can become the face of the humanitarian disaster. In one strange sequence, he sits in front of the lens while his bushy beard and hair are shaved off – is this his own version of their suffering?
This cynicism aside, one struggles to criticise Weiwei’s publicly voiced intent behind the film – that is, to capture the largest mass migration since the end of World War II and record the human suffering that goes largely ignored by countless governments, both first world and developing. Even if his stock as a humanitarian stands to consequently climb, that the artist chose this vital cause to lend his considerable weight and talent is a blessing. However, Weiwei cannot look any deeper than the surface of the issue, constrained as he is by the magnitude of his undertaking.
By trying to paint a global picture of the crisis, Weiwei loses sight of the human beings that are being devastated by it. His striking use of drone footage appears many times throughout ‘Human Flow’, in places you’ve never viewed like this before, however drones capture scale by zooming out or speeding past, two camera movements that reduce the size or minimise the screen time of their subject. In conveying the enormity of each of the crises, it remains impossible to keep the human story in focus. Yes, there are fragments of individual pain – a Muslim woman, her back turned to the camera, pauses her interview to cry plaintively – but they’re too fleeting and too random to convey the humanity of the displaced millions.
Since it began its mainstream release, the film’s broader reception has been vastly more positive than that which marred its Venice bow. Yet most positive notices appear to focus on the film’s lofty ambitions, to capture the refugee crisis in a single, monumental document. There is less praise for the film’s execution, other than occasional nods to its cinematography. I agree with my colleagues, both those whom lambasted the film when it premiered in Venice and those whom have praised it since; ‘Human Flow’ deserves to be seen, such is the gravity and scale of the global tragedy which it details and the helpful outline it presents for newcomers to the crisis, yet one can also wish that his vision had a little more direction, a little more flow.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out March 15.