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Deluge of Reality

by Billie Esplen

Human Flow

Ai Weiwei, Amazon Studios, 2017

We are inundated with film, television, and visual arts that ‘speak to the moment’. Social and political relevance has become a primary currency used by production companies and streaming services as they jostle for market supremacy. The more cutting edge, the more relevant, the better. Although often tokenistic, and in places hypocritical, this is not necessarily counterproductive. It would be difficult to find reason to regret the creation of pieces of art like Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Jill Soloway’s Transparent, or the recent adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. However, these illuminating and progressive fictions can make privileged audiences feel like they have accounted for, and fully understood, the reality of the issues they allude to or deal with. Watching works like Ai Weiwei’s documentary Human Flow forces us to recognise just how far away from understanding real events our fictions actually leave us.

Filmed across 23 different countries, and in over 40 refugee camps, Ai’s documentary is a testament to the magnitude of the global refugee crisis. In one of the opening sequences, the crew follow what looks like a vast river of people making its way through the wintry Greek countryside. It is hard to estimate how many they number. The sudden and relentless cuts from setting to setting give an impression of endlessness. But this list of locations, while vast, is by no means exhaustive. These snapshots are just grains of sand. Today nearly 66 million people have been forcibly displaced due to war, persecution, consequences of climate change and crushing poverty. In 2016, when the documentary was being shot, 22 million people registered as refugees. Half of those were children. Statistics like these, and fragments of poetry, punctuate the vignettes:

I want the right of life,

of the leopard at the spring, of the seed splitting open –

I want the right of the first man.

– Nazim Hikmet, Turkish Poet (1902-1963)

Ai remarks on the difficulty of communicating the experience of refugees through film: ‘you do not feel … the way the experiences of refugees become unbearable because of the length of time. So a film can never fully tell that truth and that truth is unbearable.’ One of his piece’s virtues is its willingness to exceed the traditional commercial 90–120-minute duration bracket. At points during the two and a half hours it really did feel like it would never end. But he is right to assert that this is not an experience of suffering – it is an experience of art; the prism through which one man is refracting his encounters with that suffering.

Ai’s piece also exploits documentary’s power to celebrate individual realities. Human Flow does not provide the voyeuristic escapism of fictional film, but the incredible immediacy of watching someone suffer in real time, and of empathising with a real person. The sweeping aerial shots that characterise the film’s general aesthetic are vastly outnumbered by those of interviewees’ faces, their hunched backs, and their temporary housing. An elderly couple sit in a field of meadow flowers and explain how their life of isolated self-subsistence was destroyed. One father stands in front of the graves of five of his family members, listing off their names and holding up their identification cards one by one. Following the announcement that the EU had made a deal with Turkey which allowed them to forcibly repatriate Kurdish refugees in exchange for six billion Euros in aid and visa-free travel to Europe for Turkish citizens, one man at the camp in France sits behind a protest sign reading ‘Respect’, crying. The affective power of documentation should never be underestimated. Ai Weiwei and his team have struck the balance perfectly between scope and humanity.

The presence of the director himself in the footage plays no small part in this. There could, perhaps, have been fewer shots of him walking along beaches and border fences and having his head shaved, but these arguably gratuitous episodes are far outweighed by the ones in which his sympathetic presence makes the difference between objectification and empowerment – all the more important given the prevailingly dehumanising narrative being propagated by the government and the media. We certainly feel his belief when making the film that ‘any crisis or hardship that happens to another human being should be as if it is happening to us.’ The film manages, miraculously, to overcome the problem of turning these human beings into art objects, largely through Ai’s role as the bridge between aid-worker and refugee; onlooker and subject. As both a former refugee, who later in life was put under house arrest and wrongfully imprisoned by the Chinese government, and a successful international artist currently living safely in Berlin, he embodies both. And the way he interacts with the interviewees as his equals creates a sense of co-creation. The story of his film, and the plea which it ultimately forms itself into, is, very simply, the stories and pleas of hundreds of individual people – all of whom are credited.

‘Art always wins’, Ai has said when discussing Human Flow. ‘Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay.’ This is not, really, the kind of art which immortalises it’s creator. It is not the kind of art that acts as a reflection of the artist. Ai Weiwei is important to Human Flow only in that he a suitable candidate for the task, and that it needed to be made. He has brought a political reality effectively into the lives of an indifferent public. Thus, if the film immortalises anything it will be the ambivalence of international governments and the ignorance of the rest of the world. We are pretending both that there is no crisis, and that the crisis is too big to be handled. On a European scale, it is not so much a ‘refugee crisis’, but a crisis in governmental decision making. As the cogent symbolism of Ai’s work emphasises, the ‘blocking out’ of any human occurrence is a recipe for suffering, lack of empathy and, ultimately, disaster; and the global refugee crisis is a crushing illustration of this.

In a culture in which in is becoming increasingly easy at once to access knowledge and to shape and filter it, Ai’s work forces us to consider whether now is the time for fiction, or to what extent fantasy – however ‘relevant’ – can wake us up to political realities. No one would even think to compare Orlando von Einsiedel’s The White Helmets to any fictional work on the same topic. Documentary will have to become a more widely consumed form if any changes in attitude are to be effected on a large scale. The lasting impression one gets from Human Flow is one of a flood of understanding: the kind of forced realisation that we should be having more often than we do. In short, it does not merely ‘speak to the moment’, but documents it.


Many thanks to Student Action for Refugees Oxford for organising the screening of Ai’s film. Find out about similar events and how to get involved with refugee volunteering via their Facebook page, @STAR.oxforduni.

BILLIE ESPLEN reads English at St Anne’s. Call her by your name and she’ll almost certainly call you by hers.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios


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