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A Chance to Play the Witness: a review of Ai Weiwei's 'Human Flow' (watched 13 December

Having admired Ai Weiwei’s work since his famous Sunflower Seeds were fenced off to the public due to the Health and Safety risk of porcelain dust floating around Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall and entering the lungs of the common or garden art-goer in 2010, I was interested to see his new film, Human Flow. As well as being directed by an artist who I hold in high esteem, the subject of the documentary is one that I care deeply about.

This feature-length documentary explores the refugee crises of contemporary Europe, America, Africa, and the Middle East. Weiwei and his film crew visited refugee camps and borders between countries to film (and occasionally interact with) the people there, many of whom are refugees. The film highlights disasters from which they have had to flee. The list includes war and human rights abuses. The film also notes that climate change plays a major role in making uninhabitable places that were once homes.

The similarity between Weiwei’s documented causes of the flow of people running from their homes seemed stark: the threats to the safety of the people documented in the film- and, by implication, all people- have all been caused by human beings, or to put it another way, us.

As a woman who has worked with children and young people for many years, my eyes filled with tears several times when I saw the sheer volume of child refugees travelling to Europe, illegally crossing borders, or just getting stuck in camps or detention centres. Some of the children were with a parent or family member- the film contains a particularly moving piece of footage depicting two brothers who had fled their home country together- but a vast number seemed to be alone. The audience is exposed to examples of pregnant women fleeing their countries- notably one who went into labour on a boat- and their children therefore being born into displacement. My western nature exposes itself when I think about this: how can these women and children access proper medical care? What about registering the birth? Which country will it say on the child’s birth certificate? Most of all, I felt deeply saddened that children and babies who had absolutely nothing to do with the reasons for their refugee status had to be carried, often quite literally, on their journey to what their parents hoped would be safety.

An interesting point to note is that Weiwei nods to how our current crises arguably began: with America’s involvement, under the presidency of George W Bush, in the Iraq war. This followed the presumed[1] terror attack on New York’s Twin Towers in 2001. It is easy for a millennial like me to ignore the history of human conflicts and think of Iraq as the start of our generation’s wars, when it was simply an escalation of conflict between Iraq and Iran.

Weiwei also acknowledges the current and ongoing crisis of climate change (which affects every being on the planet and uses its power to displace ever more people through flooding, fires, and earthquakes).

Although it seems that we, human beings, are destroying our world, the film shows many calm, sweeping views of oceans and land. These were filmed using drones. This is an interesting technique because, as artist Patrick Lowry conveyed through a sculpture shown at the University of Gloucestershire’s Hardwick Gallery two years ago, drones are used by the military to bomb other countries. This may be seen as an inevitable contribution to the displacement of thousands of people fleeing our wars.

As if the aforementioned issues weren’t enough, some refugees were and are running from human rights abuses such as sexual exploitation, only to discover that rape of women and children remains an issue within the implied safety of refugee camps. I remember having an argument with the Tory MP of my old university-town over his decision to vote to send more air-strikes to Syria in 2016, I think, at the height of the refugee crisis, in which he cited the rape and sexual exploitation of Syrian women as one of his reasons to vote for the continuation of our air-strikes.

The film Human Flow suggests to me that the people who seek refuge in Western countries arrive in a flood of relief. How long their presumed feelings of liberation last when they discover that others in the camps pose a threat to them, and when they reach our borders and discover feelings of nationalism, of ‘keeping Britain British’ or ‘making America great again’, I do not know.

The film is interspersed with quotes from thinkers, authors, politicians, and media outlets, which helps to maintain the audience’s focus on the issues at stake. I found myself thinking along the lines of “that’s a really interesting quote, I’ll have to look it up later” and “I remember that being in the news”. This allows the audience to realise that, although they actively play the witness by viewing second-hand what Weiwei himself observed when documenting the plight of refugees, they have born witness- to some extent- to contemporary humanitarian crises for many years.

Although the act of running words across a screen for what may seem like the sake of adding a visual element to a narration has in the past annoyed me, the subtitles in Human Flow seemed to exist out of necessity. These either translated languages in order to give the viewer an important insight into what was being said in a foreign language or grounded aspects of the film in recent media history, bringing complex and often seemingly distant issues closer to home. More than once I realised that I remembered a news story being released the first time around. Although I came at the film from a sympathetic perspective and with some prior knowledge of contemporary humanitarian crises, the fact that I was offered snippets from Western media really helped to ground me in the issue of displacement as well as some of the reasons behind it.

Immediately after seeing the film, I had a discussion with a group of students.

The debate centred upon whether or not it was acceptable for Ai Weiwei to be shown on camera talking to refugees. This is an interesting question: should the artist and director of Human Flow be allowed to take a frequent position in front of the camera? I feel that, had he been shown to be having fun or otherwise detracting from the plight of refugees, it would have been absolutely wrong. Because I am aware that Weiwei had to leave his own country to seek refuge in Germany, I believe he must have a great deal of empathy for the world’s refugees. My view is that his actions were sensitive and, as a refugee of China, Weiwei fitted compassionately into the human flow that he was documenting.

Human Flow may be one of the most important films of this year. Not only does it highlight and make real one of the biggest issues of our time, it left me questioning what else I myself might do to play an active role in helping refugees and other victims of the world’s issues. Simply sending an email to encourage my MP to help seems not to be enough.

Whatever the solutions are to these crises, I know that there’s no way that I can do it alone. Ai Wei Wei’s work is also just a small drop in the ocean: at best, it lends us the education and motivation to begin to create change. “Us”, however, will not be “all of us”: one film (no matter how important) by one Fine Artist-turned-Director (no matter how amazing I, personally, think he is) is a drop in the ocean of our consciousness, and of our collective conscience.

Like Weiwei, I play the role of the artist: my personal method of helping refugees has to be through art. I would like to plead with everyone else; teachers, lawyers, politicians, journalists, bankers and celebrities, to use whatever power or influence you might have to view this film, spread the word, and encourage others to do what they can to support people less fortunate than themselves, or at the very least to turn off the lights when you leave the room in order to try to lessen the plight of the Climate refugee.

J Moreton

[1] I say “presumed” because it is clear that the West (notably America, but also- shamefully- my home country, Great Britain) has profited monetarily from dealing arms to help to fuel this war, among others.

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