Human Flow, review – Ai Weiwei’s refugee crisis doc is necessary viewing

Artist Ai Weiwei looks at his new homeland and finds a continent putting up barriers to those in need in his essential new film about the refuguee crisis

Human Flow is a documentary by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei on the ongoing refugee crisis. It’s a film conceived on a scale that attempts to do justice to what is surely the great tragedy of our age. From the vast camps of displaced people in Lebanon and Kenya through the long columns of refugees marching across a wintry landscape in northern Greece towards further entry into mainland Europe to the defensive barriers looming over borderlands in Israel and Texas, this is a work of panoramic scope, truly global in outlook, dispatches from dozens of countries on the misery of forced migration and the pain of exile.

It is sombre and (to risk a rather pompous word) necessary viewing. Human Flow has the virtues of good journalism: through its ceaseless globetrotting of sites of refugee movement and judicious selection of talking-head experts, it offers a sobering and in-depth account of the interconnected causes of the crisis (notably war, climate change and global inequality). But Ai Weiwei is an artist not a journalist, and his film is invested less with an attitude of cool analysis than a sense of stark visual poetry.

Drone footage high above a temporary settlement in Turkey illustrates the sheer enormity in number of displaced Kurds far more effectively than any statistic could – although these too are provided by on-screen text. A short sequence about a caged tiger that ended up in Gaza via one of the tunnels to and from Egypt evokes the feeling of entrapment suffered by the Palestinian people with wordless eloquence.

But the immersive, impressionistic approach has its flaws. There is, for instance, quite a lot of footage of Ai himself. Travelling from refugee camp to refugee camp, recording events with an iPhone that is like an extension of his arm, he’s an amiable and curious surrogate for what must be the film’s intended audience: people like us, secure in the developed world.

A short sequence about a caged tiger that ended up in Gaza via one of the tunnels to and from Egypt evokes the feeling of entrapment suffered by the Palestinian people with wordless eloquence

At times his presence feels redundant. Is the shot of him grilling meat in Calais’ infamous Jungle really necessary? Or, from the beginning of the film: he’s seen helping a drenched and exhausted refugee from an overloaded boat that’s made it to a Greek island. He wraps an arm around the poor man in a protective embrace, but dangling from his other arm is that omnipresent iPhone. Given the circumstance this struck me a fairly inappropriate moment for a selfie.

But Ai’s sincere compassion disarms such reservations – as in the moment when he quietly passes a bucket to a Kurdish woman, retching with distress. This is a film of sweeping vistas, of expansive views of landscapes that are marked by the passage of refugees, from the dusty terrain of a north African desert to the lush river lands and forests of Burma (from where we hear harrowing testimony from ethnic Rohingya).

And yet it’s the more intimate scenes that resonate: the grainy footage of two Kurdish brothers weeping as they contemplate a forced return to Turkey; another Kurd expressing his near-unimaginable pain as he recalls the loss of his family members in a sea crossing next to an open grave.

After years in China Ai is based in Berlin, and the film seems partly his attempt to reckon with his new European homeland. Much is made about the EU’s charter on refugees – and while some credit is given to Germany’s response to those fleeing Syria, the film’s abiding impression is of a continent of closing its borders to those it had pledged to help. So, this is indeed necessary viewing and, from a European point of view, rather shameful too.

Human Flow is in cinemas from December 8

Read our interview with Ai Weiwei in the new Big Issue, out now