Film Review: Human Flow by Ai Wei Wei

Ai Wei Wei’s documentary Human Flow, released in 2017, is incredible for a variety of reasons. In the two and a half hour-long film, Ai Wei Wei, arguably China’s most famous modern artist, and his film crew follow and examine most contemporary refugee flows across the globe. Human Flow is masterful, both as a documentary and as a work of modern art, for two reasons. First, the breadth of the documentary is simply humbling in that Ai covers such a large number of crises. Secondly, the perspectives: Human Flow attempts to humanize the idea of ‘refugee’ by examining the nuances of what being a refugee means from various perspectives.

“Being a refugee is much more than a political status, it is the most pervasive kind of cruelty that an be exercised against a human being, by depriving a person of all forms of security, the most basic requirements of a normal life, by cruelly placing that person sometimes at the mercy of a very un- or -inhospitable host countries (sic) that do not want to receive this refugee.” Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, Head of the PLO Department of Culture and Information

I’m really excited about this documentary due to a personal attachment I have to seeing Laundromat, another of Ai Wei Wei’s works first-hand in Prague. In the summer of 2017 I found myself in a museum of modern art in Prague and on display at this gallery was Ai Wei Wei’s exhibition Laundromat.


Laundromat is an exceptional project that attempts to pay respect to the experience of refugees by washing, ironing, and organizing the clothing from the Idomeni refugee camp in Greece. The symbolic act of washing, ironing, and organizing the clothing is an attempt to come to terms with and in some small way show respect to the millions of people fleeing conflict, famine, and crises in search of a better life. The presentation of the exhibit was a sensory overload: On the floor of his exhibition there were tweets detailing the metamorphosis of the Syrian War and personal testaments from victims as well as news updates; along the walls were hundreds of photographs of the refugees from Idomeni camp; there must have been over a thousand pieces of clothing (including children’s undergarments, t-shirts, pants, jeans, etc.) organized in the centre of the exhibit; and along one edge there were perhaps over a hundred pairs of shoes organized. The shoes really struck me because of their similarity to an exhibit at Auschwitz-Bikenau Memorial. At Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial there’s an exhibit of thousands and thousands of shoes collected from the prisoners, and having just been at the Memorial days before seeing Laundromat I almost instantaneously made this connection.


Human Flow was the fourth aspect of Laundromat: the documentary offered another way of looking into the lives of the refugees and understanding their plight.

A refugee is a person with “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” UN Refugee Convention (1951)

What struck me most about the documentary was its sheer breadth. Since about 2015 the plight of Syrian refugees has dominated the media. To an extent, this makes perfect sense: the Syrian refugee crisis is the largest refugee crisis since World War II. However, Human Flow documents refugees fleeing conflicts or famine in Nigeria, Somalia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Afghanistan, and the Gaza Strip. I think when the average person visualizes a refugee we see a Syrian, or maybe we don’t see anything at all because the circumstances of a refugee can be so hard to imagine and empathize with. Human Flow not only gives a face to the term ‘refugee’ but shows the similarities among populations that on the surface seem different: despite their cultural and ethnic differences, these marginalized populations are all affected by external circumstances that have made them stateless.


Secondly, the documentary is fascinating because it looks at a variety of people. It looks at the statelessness has diverse impacts on men, women, and children. Men, the breadwinners or the head of families, experience a certain emasculation when they become unable to provide food, security, and a home for their dependents. Young men travelling alone also have a unique experience of being completely on their own, yet finding community in the shared experiences of other young, male refugees who are far from their families. Women experience difficulties in a variety of unique ways, one of the hardest being the assumption of ‘fatherly roles’ and thus taking on the roles of both a mother and a  father. Children, in my opinion, have the most interesting and unique experiences: they lose their opportunity to be educated, they experience childhood in a foreign land, and the experiences which their become normalized to are experiences few other people can relate to. Examining what it means to be a refugee from this variety of perspectives is one of the greatest achievements of this documentary.


“You must always hold on to humanity and the more immune you are to peoples’ suffering, I think that’s very, very dangerous. … It’s critical for us to maintain this humanity, for the health of our own society…” Dana Firas, Princess of Jordan

A few interesting facts from the film include:

  • Between 2015 and 2016 over 1 million people arrived in Greece, mostly from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.
  • There are about 1.3 million Syrians in Jordan
  • More than 210,000 African refugees arrived in Italy between 2015 and 2016
  • Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees at about 3 million
  • About one-third of Lebanon’s population (2 million) is comprised of refugees, mostly Syrian and Palestinian
  • Since 1979 (the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) Pakistan has hosted nearly 3 million Afghan refugees
  • Germany had 1.2 million refugee applicants in 2015 and 2016

10/10 would recommend for anyone looking for documentaries, and 12/10 would recommend for fans of Ai Wei Wei.

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