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Human Flow: A Review.

Would you rather be a tiger, or a refugee? What are 'borders', and should they even exist? What is 'flow', and how can it help us understand migration? Art supremo Ai Weiwei explores these questions, and plenty more, in his powerful debut documentary, Human Flow.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there were only 11 countries with border walls. Now, 30 years later, 70 countries around the world have built border walls. At the same time, we see more people on the move than ever before. Every day, 34,000 people flee their homes, travelling thousands of miles across land and sea in search of safety. In total, there are 65 million displaced people worldwide. This is human flow. ​​

Ai Weiwei’s new documentary, ‘Human Flow’, fluctuates from the visceral to the surreal. Featuring footage from 23 different countries, including Bangladesh, Iraq, Mexico, Kenya and Afghanistan, Ai Weiwei attempts to capture the scale of the ‘refugee crisis’, the sheer volume of human movement that we are seeing, and to question our response to it.

Human Flow is at times gut-wrenchingly personal: Watching a woman ask, “Where am I supposed to start my life? How many days can I live like this?”, and then suddenly vomit into a bowl that Weiwei calmly hands her; listening to a man tell us the names of his 16 dead relatives; “They appear in my dreams at night”, he says, through his tears; listening to another woman explain the humiliating living conditions at the borders of Hungary, “Could your leaders live here for one day? Dysentery, diarrhea, snakes, spiders, disease..”.

But sometimes, Human Flow is strangely impersonal: the drone-shots of the boats floating dreamily in the ocean; rows of tents stretching for miles; a long line of people trudging through a field somewhere in Europe, or crossing a river; a huge pile of life jackets strewn on a beach.

It is this juxtaposition between the personal and impersonal that makes Human Flow striking. The vast and unknowable scale of human suffering, by scenes, up close and immediate, then suddenly diminished to a drone shot high overhead, each person a dot, their lives insignificant, their suffering minimized, muted.

100 MILLION SEEDS. 56 MILLION REFUGEES. The contrast of individual and collective is an aesthetic that Ai Weiwei has played with before in his art: 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds, 14,000 life jackets, hundreds of red porcelain crabs. Something ordinary, mundane, human, taken and multiplied to create something totally different: something breath-taking; something challenging; something overwhelming. ​​

Ai Weiwei’s use of drone-shots and close-ups can be seen as a comment on this dichotomy, and our human response to it. Refugees (as a collective group) are viewed through the eyes of the drone: these shots are impersonal and lack any emotional immediacy, possibly reflecting the West’s inability to empathize or process the scale of the current humanitarian crisis- a psychological term appropriately named ‘Psychic numbing’.

Psychic numbing (also referred to as 'compassion fatigue') is a definition coined by Robert J.Lifton which explains the limitations of our emotional response to human suffering- the fact that our emotional reactions do not increase proportionately with the scale of a crisis- in fact, they decrease. This is based on 'dual process-theory', which basically categorizes our modes of thinking into two distinct forms: System 1, and System 2.

Our System 1 thought process is emotional, intuitive, memory-influenced, and prone to bias and affective valence (the "feeling" that something is morally 'good' or 'bad'.) System 2, on the other hand, is rational, analytical, non-emotional, and used in situations that require critical thinking and problem solving.

When we see a picture of a dying donkey, this fires up our System 1 response, and we immediately feel sadness, pity, distress. However, when we hear that so far 2,783 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean in 2017, this statistical information is processed by System 2, and therefore does not trigger a comparable emotional response (e.g 1 unit of sadness multiplied by 2,784).

This explains our strange apathy towards large-scale human rights atrocities, but our sudden squawks of hysteria and moral outrage at singular tragedies. Case in point: the image of the drowned Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi (viewed as a "psychologically coherent unit"), whose death sparked major public outrage at the treatment of refugees.

This is what Ai Weiwei appears to explore in Human Flow. The concept of mass identity, and how it robs the individual of their distinctive voice, their freedom, their individuality, and their ability to be seen as a normal person; mother, father, brother, sister, child.

Our shouting is louder than our actions, Our swords are taller than us, This is our tragedy. In short, We wear the cape of civilisation, But our souls live in the stone age - Nizar Qabani, Human Flow

Renowned scholar and activist, Hanan Ashrawi, makes this point herself in one scene where she comments on the refugee camps, and how this collective treatment is degrading and dehumanizing: “These conditions rob the oppressed of their humanity.”

The most visually striking example of this is in a drone shot of one of the camps: The shot begins high in the sky- so high that each person is just a tiny dot. The dots appear to be clustered around a central dot (which later we realize is a camp guard).

The dots whiz to-and-fro like little black ants, their movements seem to form some sort of pattern. Then the drone begins to zoom in and the dots get bigger, become distinctive shapes, become people, and then we are at eye shot level and we see their faces and we understand what we are truly seeing.


(image via Earthwize)

THE AI WEIWEI BITS. There was something slightly weird about the Ai Weiwei bits. We saw scenes of Ai Weiwei cutting hair; Ai Weiwei selling oranges; walking along the beach with a refugee child; giving a crying woman a bucket to vomit in; speaking to an American guard along the Mexican-U.S border.

Some reviews praise his involvement in the documentary, as being ‘appropriately discreet’. Other reviews are less complimentary, such as Variety magazine, which likens his presence in the film to a celebrity plug, an ‘endorsement of the latest humanitarian bandwagon’.

This is obviously harsh. Ai Weiwei has endured his own struggle for freedom, for human dignity and respect, and his motives for making Human Flow are clearly genuine. But I personally didn’t feel the scenes with Ai Weiwei added much to the narrative, or helped me connect more with the human beings on screen.

However, the proof is in the pudding. If Ai Weiwei’s involvement helps to raise awareness for refugees, then that’s a truly good thing!


Migration is an integral part of the natural world- An innate survival response to environmental or biological pressures. Millions of animals migrate thousands of miles each year, for reasons such as birthing or reproductive rituals, lack of resources and seasonal change.

Every year, the grey whale leaves its Arctic home and swims 12,500 miles to give birth in the warm waters of Mexico. So do Leatherback and Loggerhead turtles, which swim over 10,000 miles each year. 1,800 bird species fly thousands of miles, including the Sooty Shearwater, which annually travels 40,000 miles. The ‘great migration’ of Serengeti, describes the annual movement of approximately 1.7 million wildebeest, and hundreds of thousands of other large game animals such as gazelle and zebra.

Certain butterfly species, such as the monarch and painted lady butterfly, are on the move their entire lives. These nomadic insects never complete the whole migration cycle; they reproduce in-transit, and successive generations of butterfly continue on to the next stage of the journey.

It is curious that this is a completely accepted and respected aspect of the natural world, but for some reason human beings are denied the same basic right to migration. Ai Weiwei draws attention to this by contrasting animals with humans in a number of scenes during Human Flow.

Scene 1: A bird flying through the sky across a calm and tranquil sea. The light refracts off the surface of the water, creating a sparkling blue expanse. The bird flies on. There are no barriers or walls preventing the bird from reaching its destination. Far below, moving slowly across the ocean is a boat.

The camera gets close and we see that it is a refugee boat heading towards the shore. This marks the start of a grim and faltering asylum seeking process, which normally involves being detained at a refugee camp for indefinite periods of time- in protracted cases this can last for 17 years, according to UNHCR surveys.

Scene 2: But what about poor Isla, the tiger!? He is trapped in a cage, and being prepared to be flown miles away to safety, to be released back into the wild by the Animal Charity, Four Paws: “To keep an animal here, where it never touches the grass, is not good “, they explain. The effort that is gone to keep Isla safe, and the understanding that it deserves the right to freedom and a safe environment is all very admirable. But when contrasted with the squalor of the refugee camps- the deformed tents pitched in puddles, queues for miles to reach one water tap, the crying kids, the dysentery, the diarrhea, the disease, the boredom, the despair- it seems ridiculous and bizarre.

THE NATURE OF FLOW (the part where I turn into Eckhart Tolle) Reality is in a constant state of flux: Our life is one long roller coaster of transient thoughts, emotions, relationships, experiences, physicality and location. Even after death, the journey continues, with biological decay and energy dissipation. The flow cannot be denied. It cannot be fought against. The flow is part of life.

“What is flow?”, I asked Wikipedia. Wiki told me that there are many different types of flow- chemical, environmental, volumetric, cytometric, traffic- to name a few.

Interestingly, ‘flow’ appears to be used as a verb to describe the involuntary movement of inanimate particles as a result of external stimuli.

This idea of causality is conveniently forgotten by many populist groups and the right wing press, who prefer to perceive migration as an opportunistic choice made by people in search of material gain.

But there really is no 'choice' involved in migration. Choice implies that there are alternative options. But no. Migration is a necessity; an effect of regional instability, war and destruction. This is what ‘flow’ really means: A simple, involuntary reaction to change. A very natural and inevitable process.

A BORDER IS JUST A STICK IN THE GROUND. The absurd and arbitrary nature of borders is highlighted perfectly in one of the final scenes of Human Flow. In it, we see Ai Weiwei walk slowly up to the US/Mexican border, and calmly walk past a stick in the ground (which marks the start of US territory).

“Uh Sir, what are you doing? What is your business here?”: A guard approaches Ai Weiwei and starts to interrogate him. Ai Weiwei explains that he and the film crew will only be staying a few minutes. The guard grudgingly concedes, but tells him to remain South of the stick: “South of the pole is Mexico. North of the pole is the United States.”

(picture taken from the Hungarian border, Human Flow - via Earthwize)


So what have we learnt from Ai Weiwei's film? Well, for people who have only read the headlines, or seen the odd snap, Human Flow does a good job of hitting home the magnitude of human suffering, and the downright shoddy response by the West to properly welcome and care for people who have lost their homes, families and any semblance of stability.

To return to the questions posed at the beginning of this article:

"Would you rather be a tiger, or a refugee?" Um, definitely the tiger. (Provided Four Paws are on hand.)

"What are 'borders', and should they even exist?" A border is a physical barrier; a stick in the ground; a wire fence; a wall. Should they even exist? No probably not. If the wildebeest can move freely, then why can't we!??

"What is 'flow', and can it help us understand migration?" 'Flow' is organic, a simple mechanism that includes everything and everyone. When considering the mass movement of people as a result of external changes, perhaps we should reject the word 'migration' and simply opt for 'flow' instead; a more honest and inclusive word which could help us all understand and embrace the movement of people with compassion and respect.

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.

- Nâzim Hikmet, Human Flow

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