You’re right not to trust a film critic who calls a movie “stunning.” But let me say this about Human Flow, the epic new documentary surveying the scope of the global refugee crisis, from Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei: It stunned me, in the truest sense of the word. Again and again, over its 140 minutes, Human Flow overwhelms with its visions of populations in flight — trekking down mountain roads with their possessions strapped to their backs; packed into open-air boats to cross the Mediterranean — and then those populations stuck and stymied at borders, camping in ditches, sleeping under bridges, set up at expansive refugee camps in Germany and Kenya that seem to stretch on forever but, of course, are never enough.
Ai’s technique here is to emphasize scale over specifics: More than two hundred crew members shot this footage in more than twenty countries, often utilizing drones to capture the breadth of this mass migration. The first thing we see is the sea, from above, miles of rolling blue, and then a ship crammed with refugees scudding across it; soon, in the Middle East and Greece and Africa, we see seas of people, individuals fleeing war and famine and terror, the flood of them crashing against border walls. We see this in country after country, at camp after camp, a new mass migration that most world governments refuse to respond to. In this respect, Human Flow stuns: It reveals the full breadth of a catastrophe that we might usually think of as piecemeal.
Ai’s techniques establish a continuity of experience among divergent populations — Syrians, Kenyans, Kurds, Palestinians, the Rohingya, the 2 million refugees in Lebanon or the 3 million in Pakistan. We see the artist and director wandering the camps, chatting with survivors with his camera crew, often eliciting a laugh from the people he meets. (One young woman in Gaza cradles a copy of Andy Warhol/Ai Weiwei, a weighty tome I hope she doesn’t have to lug across the world.) We meet no refugees at length and hear only scraps of their individual stories. Brief interviews with experts and aid workers make the point that refugee life strips people of much of what makes them themselves: nation, work, freedom, prospects. Perhaps it’s to that end that Human Flow, too, forgoes the familiar technique of tracking the journey of a handful of sympathetic figures. Ai’s vision is more expansive. He’s insisting that, rather than worry about the couple of refugees that filmmakers or journalists have introduced us to, we carry the moral burden to push for a solution for all 65 million of them (and the millions more to come, displaced by climate change). The film, sometimes curiously beautiful, is above all else a challenge. Once you’ve seen the tent cities, the families living in filth, the children languishing bored and unschooled in the wasteland between borders, how can you argue that fear or nationalism trump the human right to be?