Film Review: Human Flow

What: Human Flow (24 Media Production Company, AC Films & Ai Weiwei Studio)

Who: Written by Chin-Chin Yap, Tim Finch and Boris Cheshirkov and directed by Ai Weiwei

Where & when: National release December 7th

“Being a refugee is much more than a political status. It is the most pervasive kind of cruelty that can be exercised against a human being. You are forcibly robbing this human being of all aspects that would make human life not just tolerable but meaningful in many ways.”

This testimony from a subject in Ai Weiwei’s latest film project, Human Flow, perfectly encapsulates the current global humanitarian crisis, which involves 65 million individuals of refugee status worldwide. Recently screened at this year’s Adelaide Film Festival, this documentary by the artist and activist is an immersive experience that follows his visits to refugee camps, spanning 23 countries across the globe.

Weiwei has a warm presence onscreen. He depicts the refugees empathetically, as he was once a displaced person himself — as a child during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The intimate insight into the physical pain endured by refugees as well as the cramped and unhygienic conditions bears witness to the vulnerability, stoicism and restlessness within the refugee camps. Though this global refugee crisis is mentioned daily on news bulletins and in the media, Human Flow is addressed with sensitivity and respect, and with breathtaking cinematography.

Kutupalong Camp, Ukhia, Bangladesh. 03/10/2016. Image credit:

From deep in the Mediterranean Sea to the hangars of the Tempelhof Airport in Berlin converted to a refugee camp, the vast scope of this documentary is reflected in sweeping drone shots, contrasting with emotional close-ups of desperate, malnourished faces. It can be argued that the film is more of a tone poem than a traditional narrative as it doesn’t fit a definitive structure, punctuated with poetry from various religions, quotes, facts and news headlines throughout. This undefined structure is also scattered with somewhat fleeting interviews with various people from the United Nations Head Commissioner and the Princess of Jordan to the refugees themselves, young and old.

Despite their brevity, the interviews effectively portray the desperation and the dwindling hope of beginning a new life or returning to an old one; a young woman showing pictures of her cat dressed up at her home in Syria is particularly touching. A surprising aspect of the documentary of this topic is that it doesn’t go for shock value and doesn’t portray the living situations as an abjectly miserable experience, with beautiful photography and captured moments of levity.

Idomeni Camp, Greece. 09/03/2016. Image credit:

Ai Weiwei delivers a slow-paced, extensive account of the human struggle worldwide. He does not attempt to propose way to resolve these issues; the documentary’s main purpose is merely to exhibit the hardships. Despite this, Human Flow had a notably profound effect on the audience, sparking discussions after the film regarding the sheer enormity of the problem and the actions that should be taken to ease it. I highly recommend this film, either during the film’s official cinema release in December or elsewhere, to develop a sense of the humanity and the barbarity associated with the refugee status.

4 out of 5 stars

Milly Farmer

Follow this link to the official website of the documentary:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s