Wrestling With Art: Ai Weiwei’s “Human Flow”

Still from “Human Flow.”

Put a lacquered frame around something and hang it on the wall and that thing instantly becomes Art. Or a critique of Art. Or a critique of a critique of Art. Or just plain fun. Or nonsense. Or both and neither and many other things besides.

This holds for images moving across screens either tiny or enormous, from IMAX to Apple Watch. Add sound—especially musical sound—and you’ve got yourself a downloadable Gesamtkunstwerk. A host of new technologies tries to obliterate the distancing effect of visual and aural borders, but those goofy goggles and irritating earbuds are themselves frames that put the “art” back into Artificial Reality.

Whether shackled by headgear or not, the pleasure-seeking brain often resists these conundrums, both frivolous and far-reaching.

Sometimes it has no choice but to wrestle with Art.

These questions are shouted from every frame—twenty-four of them per second—in Ai Weiwei’s powerful and necessary documentary, Human Flow, which premiered in September at the Venice International Film Festival and is now making its way to American and global movie theaters, though Donald Trump would doubtless like to throw a travel ban on it if he had an inkling of its existence. A courageous critic of the Chinese regime and one of the world’s most celebrated artists, Ai could not leave his native country until 2015, when his passport was returned by the authorities and he was shown the exit from the People’s Republic.  Granted a German visa, he now has a studio in Berlin.

In Human Flow, Ai mentions his studio to a Syrian refugee with whom he momentarily exchanges passports at the Macedonian-Greek border. “You’ll have to take my studio in Berlin,” Wei tells the man, who smiles at the idea, though he could as easily weep. Both know that the arrangement is a fantasy, one that vanishes when the documents are handed back to their rightful owners. Ai is a refugee, but one of a very different sort than those his documentary chronicles. An international star of the art world is a cultural asset, and was for China, too, until that regime could no longer stomach his dissidence and the international attention it garnered. Freedom has not stilled Ai’s voice.

Commanding a platoon of high-resolution cameras and operators and a squadron of drones deployed for stunning aerial shots, Human Flow visits refugee camps in France, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Gaza, and Kenya. Dabaab, in the last of these countries, is site of the world’s biggest installation for the displaced; that camp’s numbers have swelled to half a million people, according to one of the many startling facts presented as white-lettered text amidst the images of disaster. The scale of Ai’s movie, like the disaster it tries to take in, exceeds the epic. In grandeur of scope and human drama, the spectacle dwarfs what even Cecil B. DeMille could paint across the big screen. Human Flow is even more astonishing and appalling for the fact that these armies of people on the move and densely packed in sprawling encampments are all real.

There are, we learn, currently sixty-five million global refugees. Their ranks will certainly grow.  The average time spent in a camp is twenty-five years.  For all the desperate, valiant escapes made by people fleeing war and famine, those that survive the flight often find themselves imprisoned by boredom, a state devastatingly embodied in this film by a group of giggling teenage girls on the beach in Gaza on their graduation day from high school. They laugh off their interminable battle with listlessness. This soul-destroying malaise afflicts the inmates of such places, but also reflects back on the moral ennui of politicians and citizenry in the safe havens of Europe and the United States.

Yet for all the misery depicted in these rivers of people in verdant Balkan hills, under the baking sun of mud-hut enclaves in Afghanistan, in the rain-soaked squalor of scrap metal and cardboard villages on the English Channel, in the black-smoke war-zone horrors of Mosul, and in the choking orange dust swirling around African herders and their big-eared goats stripping the last green leaves from drought-stricken trees, Wei’s documentary is saturated with unbearable beauty: we see the catastrophe through his unflinching artistic vision, the images expertly framed, masterpieces of color and contrast. The film can’t help but strive to be Art.

That is the border-crossing paradox of the moving pictures of Human Flow: for all their poverty, these images are some of the visually richest ever screened. But although they capture vicious chaos, these pictures construct aesthetic order in their elegant compositions, especially when viewed from thousands of feet above or from a distant shore. Through interviews with aid workers, UN officials, and many of the refugees themselves, Ai indicts the European Union for its hypocrisy (though his adopted country of German rightly comes off as the most at least back in 2015 and 2016, the years the film was shot).

From sub-Saharan dust storms to orange-vested, black-skinned people packed into open boats crossing the azure Mediterranean, to an Ai-controlled drone descending with Euclidean precision to a desert refugee camp and the people there parting to make way for it as if it were a god come to earth, to flames ripping through the night as French authorities set fire to the notorious Jungle in Calais: the scenes are poised and surreal. For all the anger that motivates their chronicling they cannot help but be coldly aestheticized.

We see Ai often in the film. Or perhaps one should say that he often directs his own cameras at himself among the people. His is a kind and caring presence. We witness him comfort a woman so despairing that she begins throwing up.  He cuts a man’s hair, and offers an emergence blanket to a shivering refugee disembarking from a Mediterranean crossing. Pictured in long shot wrapped around the huddled masses, these shimmering gold and silver reflective plastic sheets bring to mind the palette of Gustav Klimt. Occasionally the screen is filled with jerky, poorly-lit cinema verité iPhone footage from the midst of the mayhem in order to remind us that the reality is brutal. Still, the distant, painterly perspective prevails.

But it is with his iPhone that Ai is most often present, taking selfies with refugees, following crowds, even treading carefully beside his own high-definition camera team as it musters a throng. We are meant to see Ai Weiwei seeing his subject.  This seems intended to encourage use to view him as an indefatigable evidence-gatherer of the unfolding crimes of cruelty and indifference. But these images inevitably establish him as auteur: it is his vision that we are horrified by, that we delight in.

Ai’s presence in the frame and among the refugees is also meant to combat this sense of distance. He wants us to believe he recognizes everyone: “I respect you,” he says several times, almost by way of apology, after receiving his Chinese passport back from the Syrian. In one sequence of jump cuts he presents a series of full-length, practically still, portraits worthy refugees against the off-white backdrop provided by a large tent. These are individuals, but presented as artistic objects. The credits list (even if sometimes approximately) every person that spoke in the film or was photographed at close range, the names spooling down rapidly in three columns, and capped by a disclaimer that  the movie’s carbon footprint was sustainably “offset.”  The need for connection and forgiveness is palpable.

Danish composer Karsten Fundal, a wide-ranging and adept musical mood-maker with many film and documentary scores to his credit, is intermittently called upon to filigree and gild the frame.  Diatonic oscillations and musical drones insinuate and then enhance the panoramic shots.  The relentless and unforgiving on-screen wind brings his studio Aeolian harp to mournful life.  There are duets between the waves and Fundal’s ethereal synthesized tones. Elegiac not angry, the soundtrack presents a kind of inexorable truth akin to the weather or the tides. Sometimes static and sometimes rotating slowly, these half-tragic sonorities trouble the perfectly unsettling images.

The most memorable music is that of the refugees: Eritreans sing with life-affirming joy, at last with a roof overhead in Greece; Coptic Christians in Calais lift an outdoor hymn, a church spire rising beyond the camp; the exuberant shawms and jangling percussion of a spontaneous street party in Gaza rejoice for a few liberating seconds. These sounds from within the frame threaten to burst through it. Fundal then helps transport us back within sanctioned aesthetic borders.

Human Flow grossed nearly $300,000 in the first two weeks after its American release on October 15th. That’s hardly blockbusting a number. But people are seeing the film, and here’s hoping many more do. Amazon Studios should be applauded for funding this documentary’s exigent message. For all its pleas delivered by humanitarians and refugees, Human Flow is not a work of politics. Instead, Ai Weiwei hopes that his Art can change the world.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com