“You have to understand, no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land”. This quote was taken from a 2015 poem by Somali-British writer Warsan Shire, it resonates strongly at the moment, particularly with Ai WeiWei’s new documentary, ‘Human Flow’. The movie, shown by The Gulbenkian on Sunday 28th January, is the first long feature film directed and co-produced by Weiwei, a well-known Chinese artist and activist.
There are many ways in which Human Flow is soul-stirring. First of all, the cinematography, filmed across 23 countries, is spectacular. Using drone technology, and his own iPhone, Weiwei captures the gigantic dimension of the migration crisis, and at the same time, the very individual character of it; each refugee’s story is different. The juxtaposition of wide landscapes, with people appearing like ants, and personal interviews with migrants is jarring to viewers who might feel the migration crisis is a distant issue.
On the whole, ‘Human Flow’ is a documentary about humanity and the importance of it, while asking questions like: what makes us human? What unites us across the world? Often it turns out to be the most fundamental things. Being able to contact loved ones, or to have a place to rest. Simple things that refugees are often deprived of. Ultimately, the movie is a consideration of the dangers of ignoring our humanity. The film points out the hypocrisy of Europe: why some can own passports, while others can’t. It’s the coldness and absurdity of borders. Weiwei films many scenes in Eastern Europe where border policy has become far more strict in recent years.
By the end of the documentary the sense that we are all in this together, that the migration crisis is both global and unavoidable. Migration because of war is urgent. Migration because of climate change, and lack of resources is inevitable. Weiwei’s film reminds us that we can’t ignore what is happening any longer. More importantly, the movie shows laughs, love, sadness, fears, and hopes of real people in an era of distant news headlines.