“Human Flow” takes an abstract tragedy — the fact that some 65 million people worldwide are refugees — and make it tangible, real, unavoidable. It does not browbeat or preach, it simply shows, and what it shows is overwhelming.
Directed by, and often featuring, the acclaimed Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, this documentary travels the world looking at the plight of refugees, many of whom are wandering without fixed plans, simply fleeing oppressive regimes, war, poverty or climate changes that have made life untenable.
There are Africans fleeing Libya, dreaming of new lives in Italy; Syrians risking all to make it to Greece; Africans gathering in the desert in Kenya; Palestinians and Syrians huddled in Lebanon, where one out of every three people is a refugee.
And, toward the film’s end, there are people from Mexico and Central America trying to make it into the United States. But after seeing literally thousands of struggling refugees crowding roadways trying to reach northern Greece — after risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean — only to find passage into Europe blocked by barbed wire ... well, the U.S refugee problem looks pretty paltry.
Not surprisingly, Weiwei’s camera work can be stunning, especially with aerial shots. At one point what looks like a modernist canvas of small, pale rectangles pulls closer and is revealed as a massive refugee camp; it’s a disconcerting move from abstract beauty to palpable human suffering, something the film manages time and again.
Weiwei wanders through such camps, talking to people, asking questions, offering aid. In work clothes and sporting a scraggly beard, he fits right in. He’s human. They’re human.
But they have no homes, no country, often nowhere to get warm or sleep. The average refugee stays a refugee for 25 years. They bear children who know nothing beyond life in a refugee camp, many of whom are never offered an education. Talk about the perfect, hopeless environment for spawning terrorists mad at an unfair world.
“Human Flow” doesn’t offer solutions (although fewer corrupt regimes, a lot less war and some action on climate change might be a good start). It just looks at the current human condition and makes it clear that we all are part of that condition; these people are us in more dire circumstance. Why wouldn’t we want to help them?
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.
Running time: 140 minutes
At the Detroit Film Theatre