Film & Television

‘Human Flow’: visual metaphors cut through political apathy

By Lauren Carroll Harris
Ai Weiwei’s new documentary finds new ways of seeing an accepted global trauma

It takes a lot of cognitive dissonance to hold the familiar narratives of global displacement, war and catastrophe at bay. “Refugee numbers are increasing,” says Wella Kouyou of the UNHCR in Kenya, in the new documentary Human Flow, “but resources are diminishing.” Sixty-five million people are displaced worldwide – an incomprehensible figure, grim and dehumanising in its immensity. There are only so many newspaper images of forlorn boats, apocalyptic camps and beached corpses that we can bear before we psychologically switch off. What can an artist’s eye bring to the fatigued discussion of the global refugee crisis?

In Human Flow, Ai Weiwei, an artist-activist and filmmaker with his own history as an exiled political refugee from his native China, chooses a new tactic – visualising the scale of the crisis from the miniscule to the massive, to find new ways of seeing an accepted global trauma. An ambitious amalgam of artist’s film and political documentary, Human Flow is a grand meditation on how to cut through political apathy with solidarity and visual metaphor. Its loveliest resonance is the way it unites the visual with the political, rendering the refugee crisis – itself a phrase overused to the point of bleak cliché – human-sized in scope and impact.

We begin in Europe, the continent that birthed the United Nations’ refugee convention. The images should be familiar, but by reframing them carefully and creatively in a new narrative, Ai makes the familiar resonant again. A fluoro-jacketed bureaucrat motions to a single gate through which a million refugees passed in the previous year, breaking down the mass dimensions of movement into something tangible. Gold emergency blankets glint in the night off the island of Lesbos. In makeshift camps in disused railway stations, diagonal rows of Muslim asylum seekers face Mecca in worship. Aerial shots of the Tempelhof hangar in Germany, now an emergency shelter to 1300 refugees, show rows of rooms without ceilings, each housing five bunkbeds, like derelict Ikea showrooms. Even the film’s direct metaphors shine: the waves of Mediterranean Sea, lit crimson at sunset, seem to crash with the blood of the drowned.

“It’s not the Europe we dreamt of,” says one aid worker. Another says that the biggest challenge isn’t logistical – doling out food and supplies – but making people feel like people: “You are robbing the person of all aspects that would make life not just tolerable but worth living.” Ai also creatively coopts a device of broadcast news – the headline ticker, scrolling sideways through the bottom of the frame – as a neat way of packing more information into the film without more talking heads. Eventually, the ticker morphs towards the rhetorical: “Berliner Zeitung: What Now, Europe?”

Ai visits refugee camps that have developed their own economies – miniature states for the stateless – and one in Lebanon in which generations of children have grown up and died. We zoom out on what appears to be a pile of discarded life jackets. By the time the shot has finished, we are high above a landfill containing nothing else but the fluoro vests.

It’s this image that most directly evokes Ai’s artworks, which are not directly about crisis, but making the enormous scale of crises comprehensible. Last week, Law of the Journey, a 60-metre refugee boat by Ai, made of the same black rubber that carries thousands across the Aegean, was installed at Sydney Harbour, and it is a work that the island of Australia needs to seriously think about. Law of the Journey’s inclusion in the Sydney Biennale (where Human Flow will premiere in Australia) is a kind of curatorial masterstroke – a pointed backward glance to the 19th Biennale in 2014, which was boycotted by artists enraged by the event’s sponsorship by Transfield, a company with ties to Australian offshore detention centres.

Ai makes work responding to political repression in his home country, to corruption, to scandal, but the centre of it is always the same: finding the smallest, most personal parts of giant catastrophes. His 2009 work, Remembering, arranged 9000 children’s backpacks in a long public banner, commemorating the lives lost in dodgily constructed schools that fell in an earthquake in Sichuan, China, the previous year. Likewise, his 2016 installation, Laundromat, featured over 2000 items of clothing and blankets salvaged from an abandoned refugee camp in northern Greece, organised and displayed as sculptural objects en masse – a small, orderly universe of loss, cut loose from political rhetoric.

Just as Ai’s art embraces scale and metaphor, his filmmaking is epically proportioned. Human Flow – his 13th documentary in as many years – corrals twelve cinematographers, an evidently large budget, a crew of 2000 and a subtle score performed by Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg interwoven with the traumatic clatter of truck wheels, bombs and chatter. This is not your regular televisual, journalistic documentary, and though it is not especially articulate about policy solutions, it is a fine thing to see a contemporary art sensibility carried across to cinema, to see that ways of thinking can migrate, too.

Ai is someone who trades in images and symbols. He knows their power. Some of Human Flow’s footage comes directly from his iPhone, and he is shown constantly framing and reframing what’s before him with the little device. His presence is personal. “Really, thank you,” says a man called Mahmoud, to Ai, on his way to Europe through the stretch of land that was once the Eastern bloc. “I respect you,” replies the artist.

When Ai gives the screen over to refugees, he positions them in the centre of the frame so that we cannot ignore them any longer. A woman and her husband, cross-legged in a flowered meadow in Eastern Europe, look down at the camera and speak directly of their former life: “We baked our own bread. We didn’t need anything else. Life must be worth living.” Another man holds the ID cards of his deceased family members, who visit him at night in dreams. One of a group of women from Palestine lament that her homeland has bled the largest and longest-standing refugee population of anywhere: “Gaza has gotten lost beyond the world.” Her friend says that her “one and only dream is to travel on a cruise ship. But that is impossible.”

By this time, we have learned enough to know that these women will likely never find home. In Human Flow, we feel their sense of displacement anew.

Lauren Carroll Harris

Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and the television critic for Radio National’s The Screen Show.

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