There is a severe beauty to the drone shots in Ai Weiwei’s new documentary film, Human Flow. The symmetry of the images, the pin-sharp detail of pictures taken from high, high up in the sky. They look like paintings – photorealist paintings. The technique of Gerhard Richter come to mind; the imagery however, is even more sparse. The camera remains static but sometimes there is movement within the picture. At one time, the camera zooms in towards the ground. The framing is all.
Those are not abstract images – it is possible to recognise there are people in those frames – but they are images tending towards abstraction; the people in the pictures have become objects.
Such drone shots are a recurring theme, punctuating Ai Weiwei’s narrative about the plight of a growing number of the world’s population. In super-imposed captions, the film explains the huge scale of displacement and loss: 65 million people are now in involuntary exile from the place they call home.
Human Flow brings together multiple stories that are usually seen in the news report but presented individually. Ai Weiwei here brings it all together in one film, lasting just over two hours. His camera crews roam from Greece to Bangladesh and survey most continents – Africa, Asia, Europe, America. There is an epic scale to this film, shot in 23 different countries, which replicates the art Ai Weiwei creates in other media, for example his sunflower seeds installation, Kui Hua Zi, first exhibited at Tate Modern. The installation was made of a 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seed – replicas – a conceptual work intended as a political statement, heavy symbolic.
Ai Weiwei has become a global celebrity artist. This is due – in part – to his political activism, and also because he skilfully incorporates social media in his work. His art is wide-ranging, and not confined to installations – covering architecture and music, for example. He has also made, or been the subject, of a number of documentaries. A couple of these focused on the tragedy of thousands of young Chinese children dying at school as the result of a major earthquake. The loss of life was caused by poor construction, and not the natural disaster itself.
After well-documented difficulties with authorities in his home country, Ai Weiwei is now based in Berlin. During a holiday in Greece in 2015, he experienced at first hand the plight of war refugees – he was present when a boat neared the coast, and saw a baby among them.
Given the themes and methods of his work, and also his own personal circumstances – a dissident, now an exile; having grown up in internal exile, as his father was also considered a dissident – Human Flow feels a natural development in Ai Weiwei’s oeuvre.
Human Flow is comprehensive from a thematic point of view. By visiting many different sites of exile across the world, Ai Weiwei shows the different ways in which human movement is controlled, by being pushed out or confined by persecution, war, climatic change, or occupation. Lines from poets such as Nazim Hikmet illustrate how affecting such experiences must be.
The type of footage used in the film is varied – high end, visually crisp, clearly expensive lenses are used for most of the film; this is intercut with camera-phone material. The vantage points also look expensive – much seems shot with drones and Steadicam. This, allied with the number of locations visited, makes the film look like a super-production.
The visual style and the technological means of telling the story dominate the film; meanwhile the actors within the film, the displaced persons, come across most of the time as bit-part players. The overwhelming majority of interviews are with grandees and officials. Only rarely do we hear displaced persons talk of their own experience – when they speak, it is fleeting. Early in the film, a sequence shows a series of portraits: a man, or a woman, or a woman and child, standing in front of a white canvas, in long shot. They do not speak; their voice, their name, their history – all remains unheard.
In varying guises, this type of approach recurs through the film. At one point, a woman is filmed sitting outside a tent, wishing that people in authority would also have to spend a night in such a tent, so they would know how it feels. But she is not given an identity, nor given the chance to articulate her experience beyond that of having to sleep in the cold, in that tent. The experience of people like her, in this film, is primarily articulated by officials or humanitarian workers.
This in contrast to what news and documentaries viewers can see every day on screen – the mainstream ethos now is to give a direct voice to those affected. Recent news reporting about the plight of the Rohingya, for example, and interviews with the refugees, show how articulate and lucid the most dispossessed are able to be about their circumstances. The sense of their personhood comes out clearly, and it is also clear that here are people who in normal circumstances have as much agency and capability as anyone else. Such a sense is less discernible in Human Flow.
Ai Weiwei is seen at intervals in the film, interacting with various people. In one sequence he is given a haircut, then gives someone else a haircut; in another camp, he is briefly seen grilling kebabs; in another, he consoles an interviewee – only her back is seen, and she finds herself so overwhelmed with grief that she breaks down and seems to be choking or vomiting. A bucket is hastily brought to her. There is no doubting here Ai Weiwei’s compassion, how well he means. It is clear he does. At the same time, there is a distance – a very interesting distance, which raises fascinating questions of its own.
The film moves on and nothing more is said about the grief-stricken woman. It is understandable that she is not identified; less so that she appears in this film as a symbol rather than a person. The scene is distressing and creates a sense of concern – but it doesn’t take shape into anything in particular. It seems to dissolve into an attenuated sense of concern, and a somewhat helpless feeling.
Another scene, in perhaps another camp, shows a rare moment of lively interaction – a dialogue – between Ai Weiwei and a young man. It is a central scene, which shows an immense gulf between Ai Weiwei’s perception of the young man, and the young man’s own self-perception. Ai Weiwei tells him he respects him, repeating those words. It is a scene which is open to interpretation; for some, it would feel odd that one should offer such a statement if the person in question has not expressed such a concern. The young man looks surprised and responds very politely, that yes, of course, everyone should respect each other, and he too respects Ai Weiwei.
Just at the point when it becomes almost impossible not to resent the film’s abstraction about persons, about the way the narrative seems to be removing personal identity and agency, a short sequence stops that thought in its tracks: in the back seat of a car, a sombre man is looking at documents in a folder on his knees. Next to him, two women. They too look grave, and one of them is on the verge of tears. The film cuts to the same man, standing in muddy ground in a cemetery. It is a brief but harrowing scene. He is lamenting the loss of his loved ones. He holds their identity cards in his hands, shows them to the camera, says their names, and who they were in relation to him. It is a stunning moment, but brief. Then he recedes from view. The film moves on. His loved ones have been named, but he and they still remain estranged from the narrative – nothing is known about him; he has lit a brief flicker of empathy, but he then disappears.
There is a sense of denunciation in Human Flow, but no sense of solutions. The film seems to show the movement of people as something intractable; it shows borders as part of the problem. A sequence on the Mexico-U.S. border, which features Ai Weiwei, is both serious and comic but remains on the surface of things. Yet there are solutions, ways of managing the future which at least some people are grappling towards – these are not broached in the film. As a result, the film might come to be seen to be double-edged: it will inform and engage some, and confirm in others their worst prejudices. There is a sense of a top-down approach, mirrored by the drone footage, rather than a sense of common humanity. Nevertheless, thanks to Ai Weiwei’s global reputation, a starker light will be shone on the issue of displaced people across the world.
It is difficult not to think of the sunflower seeds in Ai Weiwei earlier installation. These exist as passive object, collectively. Each has been separately hand-painted, so each theoretically has an identity of its own, but in practice, it is impossible to perceive. The difference is that the porcelain sunflower seeds are symbolic artefacts; they are things and their passivity is a given; the displaced persons who appear in Human Flow are not, and yet the film seems to make them appear so.