Review: Ai Weiwei’s ‘Human Flow’ captures the plight of refugees on an epic scale


The images, whether captured by drone or phone, come patiently and powerfully in Ai Weiwei’s large-scale documentary “Human Flow,” an artful, solemn globe-hop epic of the refugee crisis with an unfortunate cast of millions.

The famed dissident Chinese artist, an assortment of film crews in tow, spent most of 2016 in 23 countries where the tides of displacement — the greatest since the end of World War II — are meeting growing intolerance, and the number of welcoming shores are shrinking. Africans risking death to cross the Mediterranean; Syrians desperate to get into Europe; Palestinians confined in Lebanon or Gaza; these are just some of the situations the bristle-bearded Ai wades into, where the crush of people fleeing war, oppression and/or famine and encountering border hostility have led to ever-growing camps of ever-worsening livability.

Where aerial sweeps give breathtaking views of trudging masses and sprawling tent communities in Greece, Turkey, Kenya and France, testimonies on the ground — whether from refugees themselves or aid organization interviewees — speak to the human condition, everything from boredom to despair, pinched hope to seething anger. Ai also makes judicious use of on-screen text to provide statistical information, mournful poetry, or global headlines that indicate how publications have covered refugees in recent years.


The overall effect is of something too large to fully comprehend, yet also too intimately sad to ignore, the kind of dilemma that Ai believes speaks directly to who we are as human beings — that ingrained desire to better ourselves, the right to migrate toward safety and prosperity, and the belief we’ll find solidarity in that quest.


‘Human Flow’

In multiple languages with English subtitles.

Rated: PG-13, for thematic material including a disturbing image

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Royal, West L.A.

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