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Ai Weiwei’s grim but beautiful refugee film

Ai Weiwei’s grim but beautiful refugee film

“Human Flow” is a powerful documentary – except for the director’s annoying cameos

“Human Flow” is a powerful documentary – except for the director’s annoying cameos

Nicholas Barber | September 1st 2017

One of the hottest topics in art-house cinema at the moment is, sadly, refugees. At last year’s Berlin Festival, the top prize went to “Fire at Sea”, a documentary about the boatloads of Africans who risk death on their way to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. At Cannes in May, one Hungarian film in the competition took a different approach: the refugee hero of “Jupiter’s Moon” was a levitating messiah. And now, at the Venice Film Festival, Ai Weiwei’s documentary, “Human Flow”, attempts an overview of the refugee crisis as a whole.

It’s a powerful, upsetting film, and a phenomenal journalistic achievement. With sequences shot in Afghanistan, Kenya, Lebanon, Greece, France and seemingly every country in between, “Human Flow” presents the displaced thousands as individuals with their own horrific stories: one man flips through a pack of his family’s ID cards, telling us how the person represented by each card was killed. A woman admits that she has no idea where she will go next, while her oblivious daughter prods her with a balloon animal. But the film also presents the refugees’ experiences as fundamentally identical, whichever border they’re struggling to cross. They have all been uprooted from their own countries by bombs, droughts, ethnic cleansing or some other unbearable abuse; they have all trudged for longer than they ever expected; and they would all go home if they could. In the meantime, whether that’s weeks or decades, they have little to look forward to except more suffering. It’s no wonder, as one human rights activist says, that they are easy prey for terrorists and other exploiters.

As grindingly grim as it is, “Human Flow” is also very beautiful. Its 12 credited cinematographers have captured breathtakingly crisp, screen-filling desert panoramas in Pakistan, dark, dystopian views of a labyrinthine shanty town in Lebanon and several God’s-eye shots of vast encampments in which the inhabitants appear as termite-like dots. They’re images that should be in an Old Testament epic or a post-apocalyptic science-fiction thriller, rather than in a film about the reality of life for millions of people. And yet, even though the director is one of the world’s most celebrated artists, “Human Flow” isn’t especially arty. It is slower and more diffuse than most documentaries, but there is nothing in it as conceptually radical as Ai’s contentious photograph of himself slumped on a beach in homage to Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned on his way to Turkey in 2015.

Indeed, you might not guess that the film was directed by Ai at all if he didn’t keep reminding you. Again and again, he shambles into view in his hoody and jogging trousers, holding out his phone and taking selfies, as if he’s planning to put his holiday snaps on Facebook. It’s an irritating habit. He comes across as an amiable old cove, to be fair, but when you’re hearing the testimony of someone who had their house razed by warlords, it can be jarring to see the bearded, gnome-like figure of the director barbecuing a kebab, having his hair cut or dancing at a wedding. And sometimes his urge to impose himself on the film seems almost Trumpish in its insensitivity. In one sequence, he jokes with a refugee about swapping passports and identities. “You can have my tent, too,” cracks the refugee. “Then you can have my studio in Berlin,” Ai replies. “I have a studio in Berlin.” Well, good for you.

I’m not sure what the director thought he was accomplishing with these cameos. It’s not as if he talks to the camera himself, Michael Moore-style; nor does he offer any narration. Discussion of the causes and effects of the crisis is left to various campaigners and aid workers, while captions provide the mind-boggling facts and figures. But perhaps Ai felt, as his hellish travelogue gets progressively more depressing, that we’d need a bit of first-world levity every now and then to keep our spirits up. Or perhaps he wanted to emphasise that refugees aren’t exotic, dangerous aliens, but ordinary people whom anyone can approach and chat to. At any rate, his personal appearances account for just a few minutes of the film’s punishing 140-minute running time. If you make it to the end – and quite a number of viewers left the Venice screening early – you will know much more, and feel much more, about the ongoing global tragedy. It’s worth sitting through a couple of Ai’s selfies for that.

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