Ai Weiwei challenges his viewers with ‘Human Flow’

Olivia Blumenshine | Contributing Writer

Ai Weiwei’s “Human Flow” is a meditation on misery that is a challenge, privilege and responsibility to watch. The film focuses on the journeys of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) as they move from temporary location to temporary location, and provides both close-ups of individual situations and detached shots filmed using drones. The film feels global and universal, as Ai filmed on location in Greece, Bangladesh, Kenya, Hungary, Syria and Jordan, among other places that are involved in the global refugee crisis.

Sabine Eckmann, curator of “Ai Weiwei: Bare Life” at the Kemper Museum, introduced the film when it was screened in Steinberg Hall on Friday Oct. 4. Eckmann described two major connections between the film and the exhibition, saying that the titles of both refer to environments where people experience human rights violations, and that one particular piece in the exhibition shares many similar themes with the film. This work is “Odyssey,” a mural depicting the cycle of displacement and violence faced by refugees and IDPs. It features a similar interplay between personal and large-scale detachment.

In his essay “On Human Rights,” Ai writes that “Human rights are our common possession, and shared human rights are all people’s rights. When abuses are committed against anyone in any society, then all of us suffer injury and the dignity of humanity as a whole is compromised.”

This theme is omnipresent in “Human Flow,” which forces those who view it to confront unimaginable grief, despair, pain, boredom and filth. To say it is difficult to watch is an understatement, but that makes it more worth watching, as viewers begin to see both the plight of the refugee and the power structures at play in the background.

“Human Flow” concerns itself with what happens at countries’ borders, depicting in succession the Greek-Macedonian border, the Serbian-Hungarian border, the Syrian-Jordanian border and the US-Mexican border. While Jordan is still somewhat more accessible from Syria than the other borders featured, at each location people find themselves stranded, unable to complete their journey to safety. The clear message is that no one is illegal, and that to say otherwise strips human beings of their dignity and their right to migrate.

In understated white text, “Human Flow” tells us that there are 65 million people who are currently forcibly displaced, the highest amount since WWII. Since the film’s release, that number has only grown, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights says that more than 70 million people were displaced at the end of 2018, the highest reported number in the organization’s history. Now more than ever, systemic and global change is necessary so that all people can have access to their rights, not least among which is the right to migration. In “Human Flow,” we find a call to action to bring about this change.

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