Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow is one of the most harrowing, mentally exhausting documentaries I’ve ever encountered. It’s also one of the more confounding, unfortunately, but only for minor reasons. It has the problem that many activist documentaries have: The people who need to see it, who might see the world in a different light if they saw it, simply won’t. A stark, 140-minute documentary on one of modernity’s worst failures — the global refugee crisis — is a hard sell to anyone, especially someone who doesn’t already have an awareness or sympathy to the subject. There is, in this sense, a danger of preaching to the choir, except the choir is perhaps whom the film is trying to motivate. The power of Human Flow is laying out the true horror and near impossibility and hopelessness of refugees and the rest of the world’s seeming inability — or even refusal — to truly come up with a solution, laid bare in one succinct film.
While the film has talking heads and lots of facts, Ai is more concerned with turning a camera toward the conditions refugees live in. The results are straight-up dystopian, showing shoddy camps without clean water or electricity, full of people with no work and no education, living on little more than humanitarian aid. What’s equally shocking is the lack of solutions or hope being offered, with instability caused by numerous seemingly endless conflicts and a lack of countries willing to take in and assimilate refugees. Much of what makes Human Flow worth watching lies in its ability to take the idea of a “refugee” out of the world of the abstract and into something more concrete, by showing the faces and telling the stories of actual refugees, to remind us of a shared humanity.
And while the film carries considerable weight, it still has some quirks that keep it from true greatness. The runtime is an issue, though I’m not sure, in this case, if I’m prepared to balk at the idea of a languidly paced 140-minute documentary as I normally would. I’m just not sure the film should or could be any shorter — much of the point of the movie is to show the audience the sheer size and bloated scope of the problem. My biggest issue with the runtime is how much the film allows distractions to creep inside. This might sound very granular and specific to myself, but I had trouble understanding why, exactly, Ai kept allowing himself on screen. This is a different animal than, say, a Michael Moore doc, where the director is basically a character in the film. Instead, we see Ai speaking with refugees occasionally, but more often he’s wandering around taking footage with his smartphone.
I suppose it’s worth knowing that there’s a human being behind the camera, who’s not just being a passive observer. But the times when Ai doesn’t appear in the footage — for example, when the film travels to Mosul right in the midst of offensives to push out ISIS — he becomes a sort of specter who haunts the film. He’s distracting when he’s there and he’s distracting when he’s not because there’s no explanation for either. For a film that demands the audience’s attention, opportunities to place the viewer’s focus on something that’s not the topic at hand is a problem. This is, I think, nitpicky since this was an issue only while I was in the midst of the film. Now that I’ve had some time to digest the film a bit, these quibbles are fading. This is, I think a testament to the power of Human Flow and its effectiveness. Rated PG-13 for thematic material including a disturbing image. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse.