Human Flow

LetterboxD review link

By many measures, we are in a state of international emergency. From the Middle East, to Africa, Asia, North America, Europe, more people are on the move or claim the status of “refugee” today than in any decade since World War II. But a diffuse, existential problem like “climate change” or “globalization” is much harder to rally around than a World War. Ai Weiwei’s documentary, with a structure that moves around the world, explores each emergency for a few minutes, implicitly drawing parallels between them, creates this argument. We need to treat this as an international phenomenon, not just a pastiche of a inter-related but separate emergencies.

I visited Copenhagen earlier this year and saw Ai Weiwei’s life jacket public art exhibit. It was arresting but easily missable in a touristy part of town. If you didn’t take a minute to stop and consider it and what it was meant to portray, you could, like many of the tourists I saw, glance at it and move along. A similar shot at the end of this film, given the context of the 120 minutes preceding it, becomes much more powerful. And in fact, made his public art exhibit all that much more powerful to consider months after seeing it.

I would be remiss, though, to not mention how distracting it is when Weiwei inserts himself on the screen. Unlike many of his contemporary artists, Weiwei is wont to (too much, to my liking) insert himself into his art. In some ways, this makes him an quintessentially post-postmodern artist. He, like the selfie and social media generation, is incapable of leaving himself out of the discussion. Visiting contemporary art museums in the past few years, I’ve noticed how many reflective and shiny surfaces and experiential exhibitions are focused on me consuming myself, or taking pictures for Instagram so others can know I’ve consumed art. The performative aspects of this era in art feels too self-centered and is disoncerting in some ways. Every time Weiwei showed up in front of the camera, I thought about this aspect of his (and of contemporary) art. If there was any time for him to take the backseat to his work, it would be in this film.

Despite this, though, the subject matter of this film and the images and people it features are so important that it deserves much praise and deserves to be seen the world over