Movie Review: ‘Human Flow,’ Ai Weiwei’s Refugee Documentary, is Oddly Constructed, But Still Essential Viewing

CREDIT: Amazon Studios

Documentary

Director: Ai Weiwei

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for the Realities of Refugee Life

Release Date: October 13, 2017 (Limited)

Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei has extensive documentary experience, but mostly in the form of long-form video pieces. With Human Flow, a portrait of refugee life in the 21st century, he approaches feature documentary (and cinema in general) with a distinctly non-traditional visual grammar. Certain flourishes border (or cross fully into) the amateurish, particularly a bizarrely intrusive TV news-style scrolling ticker. Perhaps Ai is ahead of his time with this technique, but right now it is definitively awkward. That is not to say the whole endeavor is unprofessional. Rather, the unfailingly beautiful cinematography only serves to further highlight the unfairness of the plight of refugees. Still, it is clear that this is the work of someone not exactly fully acquainted with (or not beholden to) the norms of feature filmmaking.

Despite any technical weirdness, I would still recommend Human Flow to all audiences. Roger Ebert famously called the movies “a machine that generates empathy,” and there are few groups more in need of empathy than refugees. With its sprawling, ambitious nature, with footage filmed over the course of a year in 23 countries, Human Flow’s primary purpose is familiarizing the settled with the stories of the displaced. It is impossible (I hope) to spend two hours immersed in their experiences and not come out at least a little more concerned. From an efficiency and entertainment standpoint, Human Flow could be a lot tighter, but if it can lead to solutions for worldwide instability, then those issues don’t much matter.

Human Flow is Recommended If You Like: Looking out for the most vulnerable among us

Grade: 3 out of 5 Evil People Sent Into Space

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