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Ai Weiwei's new film raises refugee awareness

Jochen Kürten ad
November 16, 2017

The Chinese artist's documentary on the world's flow of refugees has provoked mixed reactions, with some criticizing its visual aesthetic. As the film debuts in Germany, DW looks at other movies that deal with refugees.

Film still from "Human Flow"
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Human Flow UG

When Ai Weiwei's documentary premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August, it was criticized for its "too beautiful" pictures; others felt the artist misused the topic by putting himself in the limelight. 

But there were also positive reactions. Some praised the sheer visual power of the film while noting that "Human Flow" helped raise public awareness on the worldwide refugee crisis.

Ai Weiwei: 'Believing in the value of human rights'

"'Human Flow' is a personal journey, an attempt to understand the preconditions for humanity in our era," is how Ai Weiwei describes his work.

In an age of uncertainty, Ai believes that people need more tolerance, more compassion and trust in each other: "If that goal cannot be achieved, humanity will face even more serious crisis situations in the future," the Chinese artist warns.

Tremendous efforts and resources were invested in the unusual documentary: It involved 20 camera teams, shooting in locations all over the world. A total of 40 refugee camps in 23 countries were visited, and more than 1,000 hours of film material were shot. 

Human Flow poster
Image: 2017 Human Flow UG

'Human Flow' illustrates the magnitude of the disaster

The documentary makes audiences grasp the magnitude of the crisis through a bird's eye view. Tens of thousands of people are seen fleeing into seemingly endless refugee camps; entire refugee towns appear to suddenly emerge out of nothing.

The background of the problem is less apparent, however. There are no attempts to explain why all this is happening, or why the refugee crisis has become one of the biggest challenges we're facing in our times. Ai Weiwei simply documents things without dealing their origin.

Ai Weiwei's intentions are undoubtedly sincere. The internationally renowned artist, who's been harassed by the Chinese state to such an extent that he had to leave his home country, sees himself as a refugee as well. That's why he feels particularly connected to the topic: "Having gone through the same experiences has enabled me to put myself in the position of the refugees. It all happened to us as well, even if under different conditions."

Read more: Ai Weiwei's citywide New York exhibition aims to bring down walls

'Human Flow' under fire

Then why does the film feel rather hollow? One reason for that may be the way Ai Weiwei integrates himself in the narrative.

A similar problem appeared when the artist published photos of himself in the pose of drowned Syrian refugee boy Aylan Kurdi at a beach. Back then, critics accused him of being cynical, of misusing the misery of others to draw attention to himself. On the other hand, others praised the shocking directness of his pictures.

"Human Flow" now seems to provoke the same mixed reactions as Ai Weiwei's earlier photograph did.

Ai Weiwei appears in many scenes of the film. He talks to refugees, he symbolically exchanges passports with them, or he has his hair cut with them. It seems to be part of the artist's aesthetic concept. Obviously, he wants to avoid the impression that he is dealing with the topic from afar: "As an artist, I shouldn't be far removed from the struggles of humanity," he explains. At the same time, viewers wonder whether this attitude will really help strengthen their compassion.

Film still from "Human Flow"
Ai Weiwei in a scene from "Human Flow"Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Human Flow UG

And what about this one particular scene where a refugee obviously wants to get away from the camera, while Ai Weiwei holds him back? "I needed to show the refugees my respect. I had to touch them,"  that's how the Chinese artist explains his need to establish direct contacts with his protagonists.

Read more: Provocative forever — Ai Weiwei turns 60

'Too beautiful' pictures

Ai Weiwei was also criticized for the over-aestheticization of his pictures. Drone shots make the camps appear almost celestial. The refugees come across as an abstract mass of people, while the fate of individuals is neglected.

In an interview with German press agency dpa, Ai Weiwei countered the criticism: "The film is about humanity. That's why it should be beautiful even if very sad things are happening. People maintain their sense for beauty even in very desperate situations."

Viewers can now decide for themselves how they perceive Ai Weiwei's documentary. "Human Flow," which was largely financed by Germany, hits the country's theaters on November 16.