One of the most fundamental physical truths of the universe is that all things are forever in motion. Every particle of every star and every rock has been moving for 13 billion years, and will continue moving for untold billions more. And as it is with the universe we are part and parcel of, so it is with humanity, whose history is nothing more than the story of constant movement, of peoples forming and disbanding, and forever migrating from one corner of the globe to the other. As long as humans exist, we will need to continue to move and forge ever-newer identities. This basic truth is as impossible to stop as the gravitational trajectories of the galaxies. We are human, and to be human is to move.
And yet, this primary truth is always shadowed by a second; as we perpetually move, there will perpetually be those who seek to deny this reality and to keep it at bay, no matter the cost. They will insist that human affairs are something settled and separate from the rules of the larger world around them. That the identities of the now are forever fixed and must be maintained, no matter what.
There’s a funny thing, though, about reality. It has never and will never need our approval to be what it is. The stars will move whether or not you accept their existence, and human beings will move when the times demand it, no matter how much the Trumps of the world will seek to prevent it.
The spike in numbers of people fleeing to Europe, primarily to escape ISIS, in 2014-2015 was, for most, the first time they woke up to what had already been a growing, global refugee crisis for several years. We currently have over 65 million people (and counting!) displaced from their homes and countries of origin through violence, famine, oppression, and other calamities, the largest number since World War II.
While more and more filmmakers are beginning to tackle this massive issue in their work, Chinese artist and human rights symbol Ai Weiwei is the first to try and take a truly global approach with his new and masterful documentary, Human Flow. He begins on the coastline of Greece with the arrival of a fresh boat of migrants seeking asylum in Europe. From there, he hops across the globe to various hotspots of the refugee crisis, examining some of the varied circumstances, both man-made and natural, driving these people from their homes to seek their futures elsewhere.
Weiwei himself is often on screen with members of his crew. We see him interact plenty with many of the people he travels with. But his presence is minimal; he’s here to, as much as possible, put faces and images to the news stories so many around the world have willfully ignored or misrepresented for cheap political gain. There are a few talking heads here and there to provide better context for the current refugee situation, as well as scrawls of news articles published during the height of the migration to Europe a few years ago. But for the most part, we just see people.
It is a beautifully shot film. There is extensive use of drone footage to provide big-picture images of the massive sprawl of many refugee camps around the world, with thin, temporary shelters stretching out for miles across barren landscapes. Often, the camera hovers over the camps just high enough that the huge numbers of people in them seem as scurrying ants, individually tiny, but collectively conveying a powerful sense of immense momentum of human motion and the futility of trying to hold it all back. These moments are simultaneously the most stunning and the most terrifying of the entire film.
One of the most important moments, however, is a sequence focused on Africa that reminds us that a growing proportion of the world’s refugees are climate refugees, forced to abandon their homes because the various effects of man-made global warming are slowly making more and more of the world genuinely uninhabitable. This will be one of the most consequential issues we face in the coming decades if global policy towards climate change does not undergo an even more massive shift. It will rely on ALL nations, not just the US or EU, radically reconsidering their policies towards the climate and towards refugees to prevent future waves of forced migration that will make the current situation appear tame by comparison.
This is a staggering, overwhelming film in its scope and ambitions. It may well be said by some that the film stretches itself too thin, and by trying to include at least a little bit on every major hotspot of the global refugee crisis, it deprives itself of depth that could make it more impactful for some audiences. However, I found this to be a rather fitting approach, because, in a way, the movie simply couldn’t be any other way and still have the power it does. The film is vast, sprawling, overwhelming, and a touch unfocused because it’s subject matter is vast, sprawling, and overwhelming, and defies all easy explanations or solutions. There is no easy way through this hell we have made for ourselves; just a lot of really, really hard work.
By often just letting us look at this rainbow collection of peoples fleeing depravation and seeking shelter, Weiwei forces the attentive viewer to do something most of us genuinely hate doing; to look at all these faces and truly struggle with ourselves to see each as human, with unique stories, motivations, and reasons for fleeing, each one with hopes, dreams and desires, all needing food, safety, shelter, and some sense of worth and dignity in their lives. What if we saw each of them as ourselves? How boundlessly large, then, would our sorrow and sympathy and compassion for them be?
Human Flow is one of the year’s best and most important films, given an added level of importance in a time when the governing party of the United States and major parties across Europe are actively trying to push back against the notion that all humans are worthy of safety, security, and dignity. Those who would deny the “other” the blessing of common humanity must be fought, tooth and nail, without pause or reprieve. Let this film be a wake-up call to action for us all.
Previously on Films for the Trump Years:
Part 1- Selma
Part 2- Good Night and Good Luck
Part 3- 13th
Part 4- Get Out
Part 5- Chasing Ice/Chasing Coral
Part 6- The Big Short