Human Flow (2017) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A wide, intimate look into global refugee crisis


As a wide, intimate look into the ongoing refugee crisis around our world, Ai Weiwei’s documentary film “Human Flow” is sometimes difficult to watch. Moving around here and there around the world, the documentary frequently shows us vivid, harrowing moments of human despair and desperation, and we come to worry more about the future of humanity while gradually being reminded again that we really must do something about this increasingly serious global problem sooner or later.

The documentary opens with a group of refugees crossing the trait between Turkey and Greece. Since Afghanistan and Iraq were shaken up by the US invasion during the early 2000s, thousands of refugees from these two countries have tried to enter the Europe continent via Turkey and Greece every year, and that has been a big problem for many European countries which are not prepared well for such a massive human migration like that. As sharply pointed out by one interviewee in the documentary, their dated asylum systems do not suit well to this situation, and the situation becomes all the more complicated as the number of refugees is further increased due to the ongoing civil war in Syria.

After managing to arrive in Greece, refugees soon embark on their journey to European countries which may accept them, but then they only find themselves stopped at the Greece-Macedonia border, and the documentary shows us how some European countries including Hungary become quite stringent to refugees trying to go through them. Blocked with iron fences, their borders are constantly guarded by soldiers, and refugees have no choice but to stay around border regions while desperately hoping for any change in their bleak circumstance.


The documentary pays some attention to a small Greek border town where thousands of refugees have struggled with their very poor living condition. They lack many necessary things including food, clean water, and electricity, and they do not get much medical help either when they happen to get sick. They do get some help from UN and other non-governmental organizations, but that is far less than enough, and we do not see much optimism when some of them talk directly to the camera.

We also look around other places with equally serious refugee problems. In Bangladesh, we see a big refugee camp filled with many Rohingya people who fled from the ongoing genocide in Myanmar, and we listen to a community leader who tries to be hopeful about his people’s future despite what he and they went through. In South Italy, thousands of African refugees try to sail across the Mediterranean Sea every year, and we hear about one harrowing story involved with a pregnant refugee who could have died along with her baby if she had been less fortunate. In Jordan, refugees are treated relatively better as the country has been accustomed to its longtime role as a shelter for thousands of Palestinian refugees, but we also observe how its borders have been more restricted than before due to the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS.

The most depressing sights in the documentary come from Lebanon and Gaza and West Bank areas. In case of Lebanon, the third of its whole population is Palestinian refugees and their descendants, but many of these people have been stuck in their slum areas for many years without getting any significant help, and we are told about how such a despairing living condition like that can lead to more despair and hopelessness in the future. In case of Gaza and West Bank areas, many Palestinian people living there are virtually blockaded by Israel and Egypt everyday, and there is an ironic but poignant moment when a tiger is allowed to be shipped away to South Africa thanks to the joint effort of Palestinian and Israeli people.


The documentary also points out another crucial factor in the refugee crisis besides wars and conflicts, and that is, yes, climate change. This will certainly be a far bigger threat to humanity during next several decades, and we may face a refugee crisis of unprecedented scale if we are not prepared for that, but, as many of you know, some prominent politicians in our world are still in denial while further damaging our world as usual.

Steadily maintaining the calm, meditative tone of his documentary, Ai seldom overlooks the humanity of many different people shown in the documentary. While he appears in front of the camera from time to time, he never attempts to draw our attention as sticking to his gentle low-key presence, and I was particularly touched when he quietly consoles a woman who is emotionally overwhelmed during her interview. In addition, he provides a number of stunning visual moments to remember (The movie was shot by him and his 11 cinematographers including Christopher Doyle, by the way), and I especially like one superb moment which was captured by a drone camera slowly descending from the sky to the middle of a refugee camp.

“Human Flow”, which was included in the short list for Best Documentary Oscar early in this year but was unfortunately not nominated, is a slow but unforgettable experience on the whole, and it is surely one of the best documentary films of last year. As observing the increasing danger and uncertainty in our current time, I often doubt whether we will survive the 21st century, but I also think we can do better for our future with more compassion and empathy, and the documentary powerfully conveys that to us while soberly recognizing our imminent problem. We still have a chance to do right things for us as well as our planet, and I sincerely hope that we will not only survive but also prevail with our humanity.



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