The desire for freedom knows no borders

June 22, 2018

Luke Pickrell reviews a film by the political dissident and artist Ai Weiwei about the experiences of people migrating across borders all across the world.

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.
Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed

ON JUNE 3, a makeshift boat carrying African refugees bound for the Italian island of Lampedusa capsized off the coast of Tunisia, killing at least 50. Just 10 days later, a rescue vessel carrying over 600 refugees and immigrants was denied the right to dock in Italy and Malta, and had to make its way to Spain. So far in 2018, 660 immigrants have died crossing the Mediterranean.

The massive refugee crisis unfolding around the world is at the center of Human Flow, a 2017 film directed by renowned artist and activist Ai Weiwei. An outspoken critic of the Chinese government, Weiwei left his home country for Germany in 2015, and created his first feature-length documentary in the following years.

An image from Ai Weiwei's film Human Flow
An image from Ai Weiwei's film Human Flow

Spanning 23 countries and 40 refugee camps, Weiwei succeeds in capturing the dualities of brutality and love, desperation and hope, humanity and inhumanity at the center of the largest refugee movement since the end of the Second World War. Above all, Human Flow is an unflinching portrait of 65 million people without a home.

THE FILM’S journey moves from the windy shores of the Mediterranean, to an arid expanse in Salah ad-Din, Iraq, where some of the country’s 270,000 refugees (the majority from Syria) live in a vast expanse of white tents.

One of them is a child, who clutches his mother’s hand and shyly positions himself behind her protective figure. The child fidgets and averts his eyes, but the woman stands firm, staring directly into the camera.

Day in Iraq turns to night in Greece, where rescuers work by flashlight to help a newly arrived boat filled with men, women and children. But the shores of Levos are treacherous, and many die thinking they have reached land: “[Because of rocks], they think the water is like this,” one rescuer explains, lowering his hand beneath his waist. “But it’s like that,” he says, raising the hand above his head.

In Syria, we meet some of the 300,000 Iraqi refugees newly displaced following the assault on the city of Mosul, which was held at the time by ISIS. No mention is made of the number killed in the assault.


Human Flow, directed by Ai Weiwei, written by Chin-Chin Yap, Tim Finch and Boris Cheshirkov, featuring Israa Abboud, Hiba Abed, Rami Abu Sondos, Asmaa Al-Bahiyya and Eman Al-Masina.

Now in Gaza, the camera moves through crowded alleys filled with debris, then to the beach, where an unseen Israeli flotilla blocks supplies and seals an aquatic escape route. A young Palestinian woman sitting on the shore tells us her dream is to go on a cruise.

Weiwei covers the big and the small, the everyday and the unimaginable. His camera moves from lingering close-ups of individual faces — a Rohingya community leader in Bangladesh; a young Syrian in Greece; men shivering beneath gold and silver Mylar blankets — to overhead shots of people the size of ants: a vast camp on the Syria-Jordan border; columns of Africans in white jumpsuits at a port in Italy; children playing soccer on a dusty field in Bangladesh.

We venture last to the U.S.-Mexico border, where patrol vans chase a lone border-crosser like a mechanical hound from the mind of Ray Bradbury.

“The number of poor people is increasing, and a group of rich people controls everything, like the economy,” explains lawyer and human rights activist Gabriela Soraya Vasquez, standing where the border fence vanishes into the Pacific Ocean. “While this system prevails,” she adds, “migration will continue because inequality will deepen. Migration, to migrate, is a human right.”

THE SON of renowned poet Ai Qing, Weiwei, along with his family, was banished to a labor camp in Heilongjiang province by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1957.

Over half a century later, Weiwei was beaten and imprisoned by the now post-Mao Communist Party, and his passport was temporarily revoked. Much of Weiwei’s work is influenced by his struggle for freedom of expression against the CCP.

His installation Sunflower Seeds has been interpreted as symbolizing the conformity and censorship within the CCP, and the potential for many individuals to rise up en masse to overthrow the oppressive government.

The video work Hua Hao Yue Yuan highlights government repression against dissenting activists, and Ping’an Yueqing investigates the death of an activist fighting to protect his community from a government construction plan.

Human Flow is one of many works highlighting the artist’s new focus on immigration.

His installation Law of the Journey features a 230-foot-long inflatable boat carrying 258 faceless refugee figures. Installed in New York City, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors “centers on the fence as a symbol of borders and migration, and harkens not so subtly to President Trump’s pledge to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.” In 2016, the artist posed in a photograph as Alan Kurdi, the Syrian child refugee whose drowned image horrified the world.

THE EMOTIONAL power of the first two-plus hours of Human Flow is somewhat let down by its conclusion.

The last person we hear in the film is astronaut Muhammad Faris, the first Syrian to go to space, whose message is that while we must all recognize our common humanity, come together and share this beautiful planet, “there are evil people on earth,” and we must “send [them] into space.”

This simplistic explanation that bad things happen because of a handful of bad people is amplified by the “Action” section of the film’s official website, which directs visitors towards charitable donations, but not political alternatives.

The words of Gabriela Soraya Vasquez earlier in Human Flow bear repeating: “The number of poor people is increasing, and a group of rich people controls everything, like the economy... While this system prevails, migration will continue because inequality will deepen.”

What would our response be if we understood capitalism as the driving force behind human misery, and individuals not as morally “good” or “evil,” but rational actors in a system based on exploitation, racism, dispossession and borders?

Human Flow is perhaps most powerful in its depiction of human durability and spirit in the face of daunting odds. A group of newly rescued migrants break into song and dance aboard their rescue vessel, and refugees chant and hold signs in protest of the Afghan government.

Despite darkness, humanity’s insatiable drive for freedom endures, and is beautifully captured through Weiwei’s lens.

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