Human Flow: A Rising Tide Raises All Ships

Migration & Asylum Project
03.04.18 09:22 AM Comment(s)

Film Review

"Being a refugee is much more than a political status. It is the most pervasive kind of cruelty that can be exercised against a human being.


The words, spoken by Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, head of the Department of Culture and Information of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, lingered as we left the screening of renowned artist, activist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei’s film, Human Flow. The filmis not so much a documentary as a series of haunting glimpses of the refugee crisis from across the globe, at once beautiful and terrible (? “in its depiction of misery, terror and hope”).

The UN High commissioner for Refugees estimates that 65 million people were forced to flee their homes by war, famine and climate change in 2017 – the greatest displacement of humans since the end of World War II. The average time a refugee will spend displaced is twenty-five years: a quarter-century of not having a place to call home; a quarter-century of trying to recover from unimaginable trauma while dealing with xenophobia, discrimination and racism at every door; a quarter-century of begging to be allowed at least a shadow of the life reluctantly left behind.

“At times, we are ashamed to be called stateless people,” Utah Rafik, a Rohingya community leader lamented, face cast downwards. “We too have feelings. We too are human. They give us all sorts of names. Boat people, drifters, all because of the tyranny of the military junta that has destroyed our future.”

The film plays like a book, in little chapters that span across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, France, Greece, Germany, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, and Turkey. Each ‘chapter’ begins with an epigraph, sometimes quotes by politicians, at others excerpts from poetry written by seminal Middle Eastern writers such as Nazim Hikmet and Adonis. There is no narrative and little dialogue. Every once in a while, a ticker tape rolls by at the bottom of the screen, carrying a particular news headline that affected the narrative of the documentary or the plight of those within the shot.


Ai Weiwei makes his presence known throughout the film, but he does not overwhelm. He displays no airs of being significant to the film beyond the fact that he is filming it. Instead, he allows the images and the refugees to speak for themselves.

He shows us images of row upon row of sparse refugee tents in the middle of the desert in Iraq and sprawling ramshackle houses that teeter over each other in a refugee camp in Kenya, all housing generations of refugees growing up with a sense of home that is as shaky as the foundations of the houses they live in. We watch as Kurdish women attempt to salvage something— anything— from the ashes of their house, as a man mourns the thirty years of blood, sweat and tears reduced to smoldering remains of ornate wallpaper, shattered chandeliers, and sofas with their cotton insides spilling out.

We watch as an activist in Gaza worries that about the Palestinian generation growing up isolated from the rest of the world by the Gaza-Israel barrier; he fears that they will know nothing but stereotypes of Israelis and the outside world. A group of girls sit atop the iron and concrete bones of some structure that has been bombed well past recognition. Still, it serves its purpose— a hangout spot for the girls who want to spend one last day together by the beach after graduating. It is the only place they have, they tell Weiwei, even as they grin cheekily at the camera. “My wish is to travel the world on a cruise ship,” one of the girls says, smiling sheepishly. “I’ll come back. I just want to see the world, see how other people live. But I’ll come back to Gaza.” Her friends chide her with affection: “Impossible, impossible.”

“No one wants to leave,” one Afghani woman says as she waits to find out whether she will be granted asylum in Macedonia. Her little daughter tries to poke her with the end of a balloon that has been twisted into something resembling bunny ears. “You only put yourself through the ordeal of fleeing to find safety.”


Refugees are in dire need of a social integration program, an activist in Turkey stresses. They need jobs, they need to be able to pay rent, they need schools. Children, as always, are the most vulnerable. Weiwei shows us a little boy sobbing as tear gas stings his eyes; all his father can offer by way of comfort is to hold him and whisper soothing words in his ears. In many scenes in the film, young children clamour to be on camera, grinning and jumping to be seen, much like children anywhere else. But there is much for them to be angry about, and if they are not given an opportunity to heal and move forward as they grow up, many will lose their way. And even tragedy has its hierarchy. While the Syrian refugee crisis has garnered some attention worldwide, crises of equal magnitude go ignored in African countries. The number of refugees from African countries is set to increase as climate change takes its toll and famine spreads across the region. Still, even in the film, the African refugees are the least humanised on the global platform.

Beautiful cinematographic shots (perhaps taken by renowned filmmaker Chirstopher Doyle who worked with Ai Weiwei on this project) show us panoramas of disaster: sandstorms; overfilled boats reeling treacherously on darkened seas; an origami stork flapping futilely in the wind, battered by the elements yet unable to fly because of the string that tethers it to the chain links of a border fence. Human Flow is more experimental in its imagery, showing us footage from Weiwei’s cellphone, including an incredibly perplexing shot of the artist filming himself and a refugee in the screen of the refugee’s phone as the refugee takes a selfie of himself and Weiwei with a selfie stick. And then, there are the drone shots, taken far above so we can truly see the flow of human beings. To me, there was almost something vulturine about these shots; even as we watch and empathise with these refugees, they are like ants to us: helpless creatures in a parallel universe.

“By depriving a person of all forms of security, the most basic requirements of a normal life, by placing that person at the mercy of sometimes inhospitable host countries that do not want to receive the refugee, you are forcibly robbing this human being of all aspects that would make human life not just tolerable, but meaningful in many ways,” Dana Firas, the princess of Jordan, warned. “It is important to hold onto this humanity for the sake of our own society and relations.”

As the saying goes, a rising tide raises all ships. Often, countries argue that they cannot take in refugees because of the problems they face— what about their own poor? And yet, if a country can ignore one poor person, they can ignore another, no matter what it says on their passport. But, if we acknowledge humanity for what it is, everywhere we find it, we can raise everyone up, together.

Kalyani Nedungadi 

Digital Media Coordinator, M.A.P