Human Flow

by Joseph McKeown


Over 65 million people around the world have been displaced from their homes due to famine, climate change, violence, and war—the greatest displacement of people since World War II. Human Flow, a documentary by famed international artist and activist Ai Weiwei, demonstrates the scale of the refugee crisis and provides a glimpse into the devastating conditions and heartbreak that many of these refugees face. Shot over two years in twenty-three countries and forty refugee camps, the documentary follows the refugee experience in twenty-three countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, France, Greece, Germany, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, and Turkey. The documentary includes footage of refugee camps that were relatively new at the time of filming, including for those fleeing from the Syrian war, and also includes camps such as Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh camp which has existed for decades. As the film’s website explains:

Human Flow is a witness to its subjects and their desperate search for safety, shelter and justice: from teeming refugee camps to perilous ocean crossings to barbed-wire borders; from dislocation and disillusionment to courage, endurance and adaptation; from the haunting lure of lives left behind to the unknown potential of the future. 

Ai Weiwei, known for his conceptual and politically-charged art, says that due to his experience as a child refugee, he has a strong emotional connection to the refugees who, as he says, have been “pushed into extreme conditions by outside forces they are powerless to resist.” The film, despite its heavy subject matter, is beautifully shot, and most importantly shows us the humanity of these refugees. As Rafik Ismail, a community leader with the Rohingya, the persecuted Muslim group in Myanmar who have sought refuge in Bangladesh, says: “We too have feelings, we too are human.”     

If anything, the film should force the viewer to evaluate their own country’s response to the crisis. For the United States, it is not good. President Trump greatly reduced the total number of refugees to be admitted in the US in 2018 to 45,000 people, less than half of Barack Obama’s 2017 target of 110,000, also incredibly low given the sheer number of refugees who need help.

Ultimately, Weiwei says, the refugee crisis forces us to look at ourselves:   

Instead of building walls, we should look at what is causing people to become refugees and work to solve those conditions to stem the flow at its source. To do so will require the most powerful nations in the world to adjust how they are actively shaping the world, how they are using political and economic ideology – enforced by overwhelming military power – to disrupt entire societies. How do we think the poor, displaced or occupied can exist when their societies are destroyed? Should they simply disappear? Can we recognise that their continued existence is an essential part of our shared humanity? If we fail to recognise this, how can we speak of “civilised” development?

At its heart, the film asks a fundamental question: “Will our global society emerge from fear, isolation, and self-interest and choose a path of openness, freedom, and respect for humanity?” Millions of refugees are waiting for an answer.