Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow , at two and a half hours, is neither light entertainment nor what most would think of as a seasonal movie. It is currently in an extended run in two of Toronto’s theatres supporting more cerebral fare (TIFF Bell Lightbox  or Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema ), so I decided to catch it on a grey afternoon during the last work week of the year. (While we can probably ultimately expect it to show up on Amazon’s only-recently-arrived-in-Canada Prime Video service, the big screen seems to be the only place to see it for now.)
The ongoing refugee crisis is the central humanitarian catastrophe of our time. Human Flow correctly connects it to the refugee crisis caused by WWII and the Holocaust, events which are beginning to fade in the memory of current generations in the global North. In the wake of the Second World War, we developed definitions, protocols, and commitments on how to deal with refugees, tools that on average have worked well provided numbers remained low (and the receiving countries were wealthy and internally peaceful). In one of its argument strands, the film suggests that these mechanisms have, in the ongoing crisis, been relegated to historical relevance only: they remain aspirational but are no longer implementable.
Human Flow is the rare documentary that manages to avoid two common perils of the genre. It does not aim to generate specific affective responses in its viewers, and it does not fall prey to constructing a language-based linear argument based on skillfully editing together a series of expert talking heads. Instead, Ai in the first instance aims to bear witness to what is happening.
It is a curious and enlightening experience, to be allowed to see, to an immersive, almost participatory extent, what it is like to walk with refugees, to live in a waterlogged tent near a closed border, to be rescued from an overloaded boat in the Mediterranean, to be bored and confused all the time. In this sense, Human Flow is everything the news media are not and cannot be. Thinking back on how the events of the 2015/2016 apex of the European refugee crisis were reported on television (regardless of source or ideological agenda), the main contrast is that the media puts reporting and reporters at the centre of whatever is presented. This is usually seen as justifed, required even, to convey a certain “human scale,” offering the viewer a sense of orientation and relatability. Broadcast journalists’ purpose is, in a way, to be “just like us,” to show us a suitably white, middle class, well-resourced person relating to the events, positioned in or near the action. As such, journalism always directs our gaze and mediates our experience, leaving—perhaps by definition—less for us to experience.
Ai’s film, although he appears in it frequently, avoids this trope almost entirely. When we see him, it is never as commentator or proxy; instead, he helps with certain aspects of refugee processing, extends a helping hand or kind words to those who are struggling, asks questions but does not say much himself. In one scene, we see Ai and a Syrian refugee mock-exchange their passports, suggesting that, in the end, passports are just bureaucratic artifacts whose ability to open borders can be lost in an instant. Given Ai’s own experiences as a dissident in China, he—more than anyone—might know a thing or two about passports and their fleeting worth. (During the same scene, Ai and his interlocutor also joke about how they will exchange dwellings: Ai can have the refugee’s tent, and the refugee will move into Ai’s Berlin studio. They laugh and return each other’s passports; in the end, privileges aren’t so easily swapped after all.)
I’m hesitant to make any claims about Human Flow as a form of visual ethnography because it has made no such claims itself. But it is interesting to note how Ai’s film-making looks more like participant observation and less like traditional directing. To be sure, we are offered few glimpses of the planning, directing, or shooting process, so it is impossible to know for sure. When we see the director “directing,” it is more often than not as a second camera operator (using only his smartphone), or as an interviewer, or simply as a “doer,” as someone who is happy to participate in the scene without necessarily needing to direct it or be at its centre. We see Ai cutting someone’s hair, walk for hours with refugees across Europe, play with refugee children, comfort distressed refugees, hand out thermal blankets, haggle with a seller of persimmons, etc. We do not see him pointing, gesturing, or saying, “cut.”
Human Flow is often successful at immersing us in the refugee existence, occasionally by dwelling on scenes longer than would be comfortable in another documentary. Initially, this grates slightly, even suggesting a lapse of good taste; over time, it reveals itself as an effective technique. Of course the walk north through Greece is long and arduous. Of course the rain goes on for too long and all the tents in the camp are wet for weeks. This combination of “content” (what we are seeing) and “form” (how long we have to take it in) serves to communicate the relentless scale and flow of the crisis. The drawn-out length of certain scenes affords us the time to imagine how we might experience these events ourselves. What would it be like to walk across an entire country hoping that the border to the next one remains open, and the next one after that? What would it be like to spend your last money to cross an ocean on a rubber ship with 400 other desperate people? How would we feel if we were incarcerated, like Palestinians in Gaza, behind 26-foot walls?
The film isn’t entirely without talking, and a number of typical documentary experts and luminaries do appear from time to time. However, each is mercifully confined to a point or two, carefully extracted from what one might assume were much longer interviews. As such, the film doesn’t really rely on experts to tell us what to think. It helps to be reminded of the historical context of contemporary international refugee regimes, but our understanding of their uneven application and disastrous effects does not hinge on hearing the expert say it. Similarly, it is useful to hear humanitarian experts talk about their motivations for working with refugees, but it is not crucial in forming our own response to what we see.
I anticipated being emotionally drained by Human Flow, imagining a documentary designed to maximize an affective response. It steers clear of almost any typical documentary devices in this regard. There is little music, and what music there is does not signal “this scene requires an emotional response.” While the entire film is about human hardship, there are few scenes that specifically offer up the suffering of an individual. There are some, but they’re often the result of a refugee telling their story; what moves them (and us in response) is the seeming futility of the journey, the sense of loss and grieving (of home and life), the endless confusion and lack of clear direction. We recognize our own fears and frustrations in these narratives. What we see, although clearly part of an alternate reality that most viewers of this film have not experienced themselves, is so obviously something that we ourselves might experience, under different circumstances. Human Flow masterfully helps us understand that these people are not somehow different from us: they are not moral failures, they aren’t merely looking to “better themselves” economically, they are not criminals or terrorists. Our emotional response comes as a result of recognizing that they are us: the banality of being a refugee, to borrow from Arendt, the sheer boredom and “normality” of this entirely abnormal situation, helps us see clearly what we cannot be told.
To safeguard against the inevitable backlash that such a film might garner in the current wave of xenophobic renewal, it makes two specific strategic moves, both effective in different ways. There is a lengthy scene at the Hungarian border where we witness border police and their military reinforcements being inspected by a superior, apparently for the benefit of journalists. Ai shows us the media event, the careful positioning and insincere, stiff machinations—how the “photo opp” is being constructed for the lenses of the media. As a result, all we are able to see is a group of uniformed white supremacists in front of a large fence, working to keep out those who are cowering in wet tents on the other side, merely looking to pass through. The stifling “normality” that is being performed in this scene is all that is necessary to reinforce our understanding that closing a border in the face of a crisis of this magnitude is simply wrong.
The other strategic safeguard is against the inevitable argument—expressed or not—that refugees should just return to where they came from, because how bad could it really be? Ai makes sure we understand how bad it is by visiting an area of Iraq from which ISIS has just been pushed back by the Iraqi army. We see the apocalyptic sky, black and orange, filled with smoke from the oil wells set alight by the retreating occupier as a parting gift. We see the corpse of a dead child lying in the desert, the camera once more lingering for an uncomfortably long moment. We see drone fly-overs of whole cities in ruins, deserted, unlivable. No-one will return to these devastated places, at least not for a while.
If you were at all on the fence about seeing this film, do see it. It will confront you with many new and uncomfortable things to know, but it will do so in ways that preserve your opportunity to know them in ways that will be meaningful to you. The worldwide refugee crisis—caused by our wars against, and economic exploitation of, others—is our collective responsibility. So is whether we open our borders and welcome the displaced.
Images courtesy of the Press Kit section  on the Human Flow website.