2017, PG-13, 140 min. Directed by Ai Weiwei.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 20, 2017
Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei continues working in the medium of film, as well as agitating for human rights with his latest work Human Flow, an epic overview of the worldwide refugee crisis. Although one would have to dwell in a state of pure isolation not to be aware of the global emergency, the filmmaker brings a sense of the problem’s vastness and scope. His compositions, which frequently favor overhead shots trained on a speck in the distance and gradually move in closer to reveal the speck to be masses of human beings, lends an artist’s eye to the devastation.
Despite the overall familiarity of the subject, Ai gives the topic specificity by interspersing his images with distressing statistics and alarming newspaper headlines. An obviously well-funded project, Human Flow was filmed in 23 countries. In some ways, this film is analogous to a Ken Burns documentary. With deep financial resources, both projects are able to research and present information in great detail and with handsome flourishes. As such, Human Flow is a great piece of advocacy: an elegant movie about one of the world’s most urgent problems, made by an esteemed social critic and cultural figure. Yet, Ai’s film, despite its staggering numbers, seems short on insight and personal consequence. The film only pauses occasionally to speak with individuals and hear their stories. Human Flow is more interested in the overall dimensions of the problem rather than survivors’ tales. It tracks the flow with cameras and drones, but the cascade of humanity rarely pauses for one-to-one interactions.
At 140 minutes, the accumulated sorrow really begins to feel like the world’s burden and it becomes impossible for the viewer to remain passionless and uninformed. Solutions would be welcome, but it’s not really the fault of the film for not having the answers. Human Flow at least opens the tap for global inspection.