Human Flow

At one point in this film during a sequence set in Gaza, a man addresses the camera and makes this remark: “What you are looking at is injustice”. This is no less applicable to what we are shown in the rest of this deeply humane documentary directed by Ai Weiwei, which studies the plight of refugees. Human Flow spends much of its length focussing on Europe and the Middle East but, relatively late on, it also takes in Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States, thus stressing the extent to which this is a worldwide issue.

Famed outside of cinema as an artist and activist whose work includes documentary videos, Ai has until now been represented in cinema by Alison Klayman’s 2012 film about him, Ai Weiwei Never Sorry, but with Human Flow, of which he is a producer in addition to being the director, he has himself created a work designed for cinema and is, in addition, one of its twelve credited photographers. Furthermore, he is himself seen on screen from time to time but, even so, he never hogs the limelight here. The film contains comments from those who can speak with authority, but the main thrust throughout is on the immigrants whose tragic situation is so vividly depicted.

In one sense Human Flow has nothing new to tell since us since the growing plight of immigrants worldwide has been much publicised. But the film is special because its impact goes beyond what we read in the papers or see in television newsreel footage. By bringing us face to face with these people for well over two hours, Ai makes us share and feel their experiences directly and what they are going through becomes more meaningful than ever before. Human Flow also provides something extra in the quality of the photography, which is exceptional (although some might find the beauty of the images at odds with the subject matter). Also to be admired is Karsten Fundal’s music score, always apt and never overused, but on the debit side I suspect that some will wish that what is written up on the screen was more readily readable (I refer not only to some subtitles on light backgrounds but to quotes from the press and from poets and philosophers that would benefit from bolder lettering). But this is a minor point.

Human Flow confronts us head on with a tragedy that, terrible in itself as an example of suffering, has consequences that put our future in question, from the lack of schooling available for most young refugees to the basic issue of where these immigrants desperately seeking a home can find one. Some may well complain that Ai’s film fails to take account of the huge strain involved if countries take in immigrants in large numbers – but to say that would be to miss the point. Ai’s film is an assertion that the moral imperative here overrides everything else, that if the world does not help refugees as common humanity demands then we are losing our own humanity in the process – a possibility that could ultimately be more fatal and tragic than any other aspect of this devastating situation that is engulfing us.

by Mansel Stimpson • originally published at

Human Flow
Featuring Ai Weiwei, Muhammed Hassan, Boris Cheshirkov, Ustaz Rafik, Filippo Grandi, Muhammed Faris, Peter Bouckaert, Princess Dina Firas of Jordan.
Dir Ai Weiwei, Pro Ai Weiwei, Heino Deckert and Chin-Chin Yap, Screenplay Chin-Chin Yap, Tom Finch and Boris Cheshirkov, Ph Christopher Doyle, Ai Weiwei, Dongxu Li, Xie Zhenwei and others, Ed Nils Pagh Andersen, Menno Boerema and Martin Hoffmann, Music Karsten Fundal.
24 Media Production Company/AC Films/Ai Weiwei Studio/Human Flow/Participant Media-Altitude Film Entertainment.
140 mins. Germany. 2017. Rel: 8 December 2017. Cert. 12A.