"HUMAN FLOW" — 3 stars — Israa Abboud, Hiba Abed, Rami Abu Sondos, Asmaa Al-Bahiyya; PG-13 (thematic material including a disturbing image); Broadway
The title of Ai Weiwei's documentary "Human Flow" creates a perfect visual to match its content.
Weiwei's portrait of various refugees around the world starts and ends with images of water, and the director's camera follows thousands of human beings as they flow from their homes onto foreign shores and into uncertain lands.
Over the course of 140 minutes, Weiwei highlights refugees on their way out of places as diverse as Africa and Burma and even along the U.S.-Mexico border. But the primary focus of "Human Flow" is to document the plight of refugees fleeing Syria into its neighboring Middle Eastern nations, and ultimately into Europe.
The film opens with one of numerous drone images, shot from high above the Mediterranean as a boat full of refugees approaches the southern coast of Greece. We see men, women, children and even infants disembark onto rocky shores, where they are given some modest assistance and sent inland. "Human Flow" zeroes in on the various camps that house thousands upon thousands of refugees, often with greatly varying levels of accommodation.
Weiwei's camera stays with the refugees almost exclusively, relying on superimposed titles to offer context for their story through sobering statistics.
"Human Flow" uses images of the refugees on boats or on foot or mingling in shantytown camps to represent the massive numbers we don't see: 4 million Iraqis displaced since the U.S. invasion in 2003, 70 countries with border fences or walls in Europe (compared with 11 during the time of the Berlin Wall), 3 million refugees in Turkey (and only 10 percent in official camps). The cold sobriety of the facts and figures is juxtaposed against snips of poetry and verse that add to the emotional impact of the imagery, such as one passage that celebrates the "right of life."
Along the way, "Human Flow" provides brief clips of interviews with figures involved in the humanitarian aid process, such as people from UNICEF and from the U.N. commission dedicated to the crisis. But mostly Weiwei focuses on his up-close-and-personal camera, which peers into the faces of the refugees, making a faraway topic feel very present and very real. Interestingly, Weiwei himself frequently appears on camera, not to address it, but to let it capture him as he explores the world he is documenting.
The desperation of "Human Flow's" subject is frequently offset by the beauty of Weiwei's filmmaking, which uses spectacular establishing shots — frequently from the aforementioned drone — to give even the bombed-out remains of shattered neighborhoods a peculiar beauty.
By focusing so closely on the refugees, "Human Flow" feels a little thin on context. While the titles list facts about what is happening, there isn't much exploration for how it happened — for example, the circumstances in Syria that led to the massive exodus — or why so many European countries are resistant to the dramatic influx of people. As we stand at the border of Greece and Macedonia, staring at an imposing length of razor wire, Weiwei prefers only that we focus on the humanity of the issue.
The film's focus feels like a strength and a weakness. We learn fleeting facts about the 4.7 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, the Rohingya Muslims fleeing Burma for Bangladesh and the Syrian refugees pouring into camps on the Jordanian border. We are given faint hope to hear of a program in Afghanistan to welcome its refugees home and see promising facilities in Germany, but we also see tent slums in Paris and a refugee camp in Calais, France, that came to be known as "The Jungle."
We see oil fields burned in Mosul, Iraq, by desperate ISIS forces and detect political perspectives between the lines. But the broad diversity of the examples is never really matched by a depth of specific investigation, just a simple message that the people caught in the crossfire are human beings deserving of respect and compassion.
For many, that will probably be enough. "Human Flow" is another example of how visionary filmmaking can make the bleak beautiful.
"Human Flow" is rated PG-13 for thematic material including a disturbing image; running time: 140 minutes.