After seeing Human Flow, you could be forgiven for thinking that all of humanity around the globe is displaced. Ai Weiwei produced this documentary about the massive migration of people all over the planet—people who are displaced by war, by politics, by economics, by capricious governments. No one isn’t complicit in forcing massive migrations and no one is free from them.
Human Flow spends a lot of time in the Middle East where wars and politics have forced people from their homes throughout the 20th and now 21st century. Countries can both be a source of refugees and host of refugees.
Iraq, for instance, spurted forth refugees after the US-led invasion in 2003. But thanks to the unending war in Syria, Iraq also hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria.
This documentary provides historical and legal context for the mass flood of migrants. In 1989, at the time that the Berlin Wall fell, 11 countries had border fences or walls. The end of tyranny seemed at hand. Communism was dying and Eastern Europe was free of the Iron Curtain.
Fast forward to 2016, 70 countries had border fences or walls. The lurch to the right that the world made in the 2010s is not in your head. It is real with right-wing governments and anti-immigration policies.
Human Flow spends some time on the refugees pouring into Greece. Fleeing the Middle East or Africa, a spike of people put their lives at risk trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in what could only charitably be called boats. News outlets at the time recounted the lives lost in the crossings and showed images of the dead who washed up on the shores.
Once in Greece, these immigrants were left to die in squalid camps. They hoped to immigrate north to inland Europe, often touting Germany as the end destination. (Merkel opened Germany to millions of refugees seeking asylum.) But the countries in between erected barriers and walls. There was no way that the immigrants could even walk to Germany. A rather cold shoulder from the continent that established the 1951 Refugee Convention.
But Greece was not the only destination for refugees. Italy took in African refugees fleeing hunger thanks to climate change. Jordan has absorbed 1.5 million Syrians, which the movie pointed out would be akin to the US taking in 60 million refugees. (Can you imagine?!) As if the 1.3 million refugees weren’t enough, Jordan is also home to 2 million Palestinians, perpetually displaced from their homeland. Lebanon is also home to massive numbers of refugees. Half of their population are Syrians and Palestinians.
None of the reasons why these refugees fled their homes will resolve quickly. In fact, the average length of refugee status is 26 years. 26 years. That is a heck of a long time for people to live displaced, where they do not belong, without roots. Long enough to forget what normal life is like. Long enough for generations to be born and grow up with knowing any other way of being.
Human Flow seems to touch on most groups fleeing war or oppression. The movie mentions the Kurds, the Kurds who were so recently in the news again when the US removed their troops from Syria and let Turkey move in to slaughter our Kurdish allies. Or the Rohingya, an ethnic group of Muslims, who fled Myanmar when troops burned down villages and murdered residents. 500,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia.
Bangladesh, with its own humanitarian woes, seemed like an unlikely spot to me to host refugees. I too had no idea that Pakistan was hosting refugees from Afghanistan…and the horrors the refugees face there too. With the rise of ISIS, Iraqis have fled, even as Iraq hosts refugees from elsewhere.
And the Mexican border. A movie about refugees wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the US-Mexican border. Ai Weiwei didn’t venture into the US to interview refugees or film their living or detention conditions (though understandable since he wouldn’t have been allowed access to them; human rights lawyers, humanitarian groups, and even lawmakers find it difficult to gain access to refugees being held in the US).
The movie also didn’t discuss or visit refugees in Australia or South America. But the themes are evident: mass migration of humanity, caused by violence, suffering compounded by anti-immigration tactics. The movie is already a few years old but I do not imagine any of the situations have changed, or at least not changed for the better.
The cinematography was breathtaking. Some really beautiful landscapes and seascapes grace the screen. It seems almost blasphemous to see beauty in the midst of the human suffering that the movie portrays. But it does remind oneself that Ai Weiwei is an artist. Human Flow is where Ai Weiwei the artist meets Ai Weiwei the activist.
Ai Weiwei is a refugee of sorts himself. He is an outspoken critic of the Chinese government and investigated government corruption. In 2015, he left China for Berlin, and then he moved to Cambridge, UK last year.