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‘Human Flow’ Is A Poignant Look At The Global Refugee Crisis

World-renowned artist Ai Weiwei spotlights the largest human displacement since World War II.

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We’re currently amidst the greatest human displacement since World War II. There are presently over 65 million people around the globe who have been displaced by war, famine, and environmental disasters. With his documentary, Human Flow, world-renowned artist Ai Weiwei looks to document this situation, contextualize the impact, and humanize the millions of refugees that have been affected.

Human Flow‘s primary goals are to create awareness about the refugee crisis and instill empathy for those affected, and the documentary is successful on both fronts. With its sprawling intercontinental scope, the film does an exceptional job delving into the crisis, traveling to Iraq, Mexico, Germany, and many other countries to spotlight displacement-related issues unique to each nation. However, it’s when things slow down to hone in on individual stories that the doc excels. Human Flow’s strongest facet is the way it brings the human element to the forefront of each crisis.

As human beings, most of us are hardwired to have empathy. However, it’s harder for us to relate to generalized stories about the struggles of people we don’t know from places we’ve never been to. Human Flow provides an up close and personal look at these individuals to help contextualize their plight. As we watch them laugh, cry, and everything in between, their struggle resonates on a deeper level than when we hear their stories as 30-second news clip.

In one early sequence, random people who don’t even speak simply stand before the camera without overlays, narration, or context. We see a middle-aged man in sandals, and then another man, and then a woman holding a child. The camera just hangs in front of them, soaking up every detail of their wary faces. This sequence’s point is clear: these refugees are everyday people like you and I. They can’t be defined by the labels we cast on them, such as “migrant workers,” “Muslims,” or “refugee hordes.” Every last one of the people in the film is a human being with individual stories to tell.

Human Flow At times, Human Flow feels too by-the-numbers — literally. The film throws out loads of statistics as it jumps from country to country, usually to begin the segment. It could be how many people in a given country were dislocated by war, or how many Afghans died since the US invasion; these statistics convey relevant information and shocking facts, but the way they’re dished out minimizes their impact. There are so many stats popping up so frequently that they began slipping through my long-term memory like a sieve. By the time the film ends, their rote delivery method left me numb.

Each segment of Human Flow is also prefaced with insights and poems. Much like the lead-in statistics, these phrases don’t have much effect. I’m someone who loves to read, but the amount of text coming only left me cold. These moments felt like information dumps rather than insights, and they may have resonated with me if a narrator read them instead.

Human Flow

Still, Human Flow is a necessary work that arrives at a time when we are most in need of its message. The film enlightens rather than entertains, and is a little too stat-heavy for its own good, but Ai Weiwei’s emphasis on spotlighting individuals is where the doc truly shines. If someone shows no interest in the current refugee crisis, I don’t believe Human Flow will sway them towards the cause, but if you’re politically-minded and see the world as a global community, then you’ll definitely want to experience Ai Weiwei’s 140-minute message. Thoroughly researched, beautifully shot, and remarkably insightful, Human Flow is a call to consider the displacement crisis from outside of our own self-interests.

Victor Stiff is a Toronto-based pop culture writer and film critic who enjoys covering the city's biggest (and nerdiest) events. Victor has covered TIFF, Hot Docs, Toronto After Dark, Toronto ComiCon, and Fan Expo Canada for publications all over the internet. You can find his latest posts on Twitter and Instagram.

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