Migrant World: On Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow by T. J. Demos

Examining the politics of representation. 

Part of the Theory + Practice series.

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Refugees at the Jordanian Syrian border in Human Flow, 2017. An Amazon Studios release. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Theory + Practice is a series supported by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Human Flow, the 2017 film by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, traces the migrations in recent years of vast numbers of people globally. To make the work, running at nearly two and a half hours, Ai visited more than twenty-three countries, including such hotspots as Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, as well as border-zones like that of the United States-Mexico, and numerous refugee camps in Turkey, Greece, Lebanon, Kenya, Germany, and France. Using innovative approaches to filmmaking including copious iPhone and drone footage, the documentary highlights scenes of wretched passage in miserable conditions, wherein migrants, living in makeshift tents and vulnerable to cruel border guards, appear hungry and unsheltered, beaten down and yet still hopeful. These are set disjunctively within beautiful cinematic displays of dramatic Mediterranean sunsets in contrast with the Sahara’s arid yellow-orange deserts, deep-green tropics, and the endless blue of oceans. As such, the film marks a sea change in understandings of globalization. In contrast with 1989 and its erstwhile promise of a unified world of post-Cold War optimism when a mere eleven countries around the world possessed border fences and walls, there are now more than seventy, many protected with full-spectrum military surveillance systems and high-tech defenses. And matters seem only to be getting worse. While the ocean may appear to some as a navigable expanse of possibility, with new lands of opportunity on the horizon, it remains for the unfortunate an uncrossable barrier, and for all too many, a mass grave.

While its journalistic focus on the lives of migrants is familiar as a common human-interest approach in mainstream media, Human Flow distinguishes itself as a cinematic feature, for which it has won accolades—screened at the 2017 Venice International Film Festival, it was shortlisted for an Oscar and has been roundly praised by critics. Its methodology is also recognizable: to portray the involuntarily dislocated as human beings who have stories to tell, feelings to share, grievances to be heard. As a result, these figures are rescued from the impersonal statistics and dehumanizing abstractions that invite invisibility and ignorance, and worse, promote xenophobia and racism, which in turn enable the cruelties of securitization and militarization that are increasingly seen as the most effective—while undoubtedly heartless and inappropriate—state responses to those in desperate need. The tragedy occurs when the most vulnerable become inescapably entangled in migration’s carceral systems, as with the recent experiment of the US’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement in tearing children, sometimes infants, from the arms of their undocumented mothers and fathers upon arrest, separating families as a publicized mode of deterrence. Constituting human rights abuse, such measures are unfortunately increasingly the rule, propelled by the collective intolerance on the rise in many parts of the world.

With growing numbers around the globe succumbing to extremist, rightwing cultural politics and media hyperbole, wherein white supremacy spouts anti-immigrant vitriol in defense of economic protectionism, Human Flow comes as an antidote. One of the film’s areas of focus is the European Union (EU) during 2015, when more than a million refugees arrived, creating not only a enormous practical challenge but a cultural crisis of massive proportions that continues to this day to place the openness of the Eurozone in doubt, a principle questioned by those in thrall to ethnonationalism. As Boris Cheshirkov of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) explains—following a filmic formula repeated throughout Human Flow constituted by overview shots of regional environments recorded in aerial drone footage, moving to mid-range scenes of camp housing, and then to close-up interviews with migrants or non-governmental agency representatives—we are living at a time of demographic migration not seen since World War II. This currently amounts to more than sixty-five million on the move, including refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people. With the implementation of the EU’s migration policy a flashpoint, this precarious situation is threatening the post-Cold War global consensus on freedom of movement. Yet rather than investigate the complex circumstances of that precarious political situation, much less easily translated into cinematic form than subjective portrayals, the focus of Human Flow remains largely a cinema of faces, not causes.

There is certainly a point to this approach. As Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization Department of Culture and Information—Palestinians being the world’s largest group of refugees—poignantly explains, “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 by depriving a person of all forms of security, the most basic requirements of a normal life, by cruelly placing that person at the mercy of some inhospitable host countries that do not want to receive this refugee.” Ashrawi’s observation is affirmed by others through the film: Ustaz Rafik, Rohingya community leader, speaks of campaigns of rape, pillage, and persecution against the more than 500,000 Rohingyas fleeing to Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia; Peter Bouckaert, Emergencies Director of Human Rights Watch, discusses the internal chaos of Greece’s Idomeni camp and the hardships of its diverse inhabitants; and Dr. Cem Terzi of the Association of Bridging Peoples, in Izmer, Turkey, where some three million Syrians have recently sought shelter, explains how today’s refugees—who on global average live for twenty-six years displaced from their homes—are commonly deprived of international rights, offered no jobs, have little income, and are consequently vulnerable to authoritarian government policies and militarized controls. There is definitely an ongoing need to bring compassionate visibility to these figures, so that their representational erasure does not compound their geopolitical displacement.

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A scene from Human Flow, 2017. An Amazon Studios release. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Rather than producing a sense of utter desolation, Human Flow’s most powerful emotional effect upon viewers—one that is in fact commonplace in many documentaries of crises and grief—is a paradoxical sense of attraction-repulsion, resulting from the jarring mixture of miserable stories of human suffering told through beautiful cinematic imagery. The presentation of catastrophe as sumptuous visual spectacle is of course a mark of disaster porn, which ultimately plays on the viewer’s privilege: to be able to view distant suffering (at least its audio-visual representation) up-close, doing so from a voyeur’s safe position of relative comfort and security. It’s as if we can be thankful that we’re not there, or in that position, even as we witness the horrors. The one small difference is that Ai inserts himself into numerous passages of the film, appearing as someone who obviously cares sincerely about the plight of others and thereby models empathy in his interactions of kindness and concern with those who suffer as refugees without easy refuge.

If his modeling of empathy shows how attraction might overcome repulsion, the filmmaker’s position also functions as a blind spot that remains largely unexamined, for Ai’s appearances throughout the film evidence another kind of human flow that receives no comment: that of the privileged tourist or artistic nomad, a figure who has the means to travel with relative ease, owing to elevated economic and cultural status and the right kind of passport. In other words, the film’s condition of possibility owes to the very expanding inequality—as between tourist and asylum seeker—that is symptomatic of the causes of migration in the first place. The problem is that the film does not reflect upon those causes, nor does it implicate its filmmaker or even its audience, other than in one singular scene in which Ai playfully exchanges his passport with a grateful Syrian migrant, telling him, before taking his document back, that, “I respect you,” as if from the heart. If only matters could be so simple. (For a cutting artistic investigation of just this sort of privilege, see Renzo Martens’s Episode III: Enjoy Poverty [2008], which self-critically uncovers misery’s exploitation by humanitarians, photojournalists, and artists alike, himself included, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.) While Human Flow’s exposure of migrant gloom, the exploitation of smugglers, and the brutality of border security is all welcome, offering an important wake-up call for those otherwise unaware, there is nonetheless little reflection on the structural causes of migration beyond the familiar vague generalities of war and climate change.

In other words, Human Flow is a cinema of liberalism: to manifest empathy for the wretched of the earth in an effort to humanize the dispossessed and disenfranchised. It leaves viewers with a nagging feeling of undefined guilt, but also with reassuring visions of redemption, manifested in images of encompassing filmic splendor and Ai caring for the less fortunate. Empathy is a position few of us would oppose. But some would want to take matters deeper in terms of interrogating the causes of the oppressive conditions that make life miserable for multitudes and that propel displacement. And once those causes are better understood, proposals can be more readily made for structural changes to the systems that produce inequality in the first place. This is a basic recipe for a properly political film—political because it would challenge the systems of resource distribution, including the international trade agreements, inequitable access to technology, corporate monopolies, legacies and continuations of colonialism, and practices of institutional racism and sexism that maintain inequality to the point where a handful of people own as much wealth as the bottom half of the human population. Such a film would have little to do with the occasional vacant clichés of Human Flow, including its concluding proposal that “we must learn to live with each other,” articulated by Dr. Kemal Kirişci, senior fellow of the liberal establishment Brookings Institution.

Radical documentaries that actually connect migration to economic and political inequality largely sponsored by and benefitting the West, and that do so with impressive aesthetic invention, are not unknown. Compelling examples include Angela Melitopoulos’s Crossings (2017), a multi-screen projection that ties resource extraction and transnational corporate interests to the hollowed-out democracy and refugee camps in EU-dominated Greece; Ursula Biemann’s Deep Weather (2013), linking Tar Sands petrocapitalist ecocide to catastrophic global warming, rising seas, and threatening social dislocation in Bangladesh’s delta; and Forensic Architecture’s investigation into the “left-to-die boat,” which portrays the Mediterranean as a site of multinational purposeful neglect leading inevitably to the deaths by drowning and exposure of countless migrants. Compared to these hard-hitting works, Human Flow barely scratches the surface.

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A scene from Human Flow, 2017. An Amazon Studios release. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

In Ai’s film, we do learn from the occasional intertitles that 268,000 people have been killed in Iraq and four-million-plus forcibly displaced in the country since the 2003 US-led invasion. But what would it mean to hold the United States accountable for these displacements, owing to the Bush administration’s fateful and unilateral decision to enact regime-change during the rule of Saddam Hussein, with its disastrous consequences for an already fragile regional stability? What would a documentary look like that focused not on the migrants themselves, the human effects of violence, but on the perpetrators, institutional enablers, and structural causes of forced migration? In his recent book, Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (2017), the cultural critic Ashley Dawson reminds readers that the 2010 People’s Agreement of Cochabamba—emerging from a progressive gathering of civil society and governmental officials hosted by Bolivia—“insists that the beneficiaries of fossil capitalism must assume responsibility for the hundreds of millions of people who will be forced to migrate as a result of the climate change caused by these countries, eliminating restrictive immigration policies and offering migrants a decent life with full human rights guarantees.” How might such convictions enter into film form in ways that could influence public opinion and change official policies?

The problem with expressions like Human Flow is that they don’t, and consequently that historical knowledge is swept aside, risking cinematic amnesia. Neither does the film implicate viewers, only appealing to their ethical character. Many ethno-nationalists probably would not challenge its approach, with few taking themselves to be the hateful xenophobes of the extremist variety, but rather only the sensible protectors of their homelands. Human Flow likely will not change their minds; at best it might perhaps fortify their desire for more compassionate border protection, leaving the problem of migration’s motivations to its countries of origin. To radicalize a depiction of the situation would mean showing how the privilege of such a position is part of the problem. It would associate complicity with the longstanding policies of unfair trade agreements, structural adjustments that produce economic dependency, disproportionate military response that targets uncooperative states, and the climate-transforming energy systems and consumer habits of developed nations—all of which define the geopolitical circumstances that have historically produced massive inequality between North and South, West and East. That inequality has created the world’s sacrifice zones and regions of impoverishment, leaving their inhabitants no other choice but to seek opportunity and livable lives elsewhere. 

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An old woman in Kutupalong-Camp in Ukhia, Bangladesh. From Human Flow, 2017. An Amazon Studios release. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios. 

In suggesting that we all must learn to live together, Human Flow in the end offers little by way of a realistic roadmap that would provide the means to transform the material circumstances of inequality that is at migration’s roots, circumstances that are only growing worse today. Climate change, we learn in the film, will only exacerbate drought, hunger, and ill health for some 250 million Africans in coming years, as observes Wella Kouyou, deputy representative of UNHCR in Kenya, host to Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee-camp complex that shelters half a million refugees from Somalia, Eritrea, and South Sudan fleeing civil war and famine. The next few decades of environmental transformation will undoubtedly provoke unprecedented migrations, pressuring all the world’s borders, likely leading to even more extreme versions of insecurity and suffering than those witnessed in 2015.

For glimpses of that climate-transformed dystopian future, one need look no further than contemporary Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, also portrayed in Human Flow, where half a million residents have fled ISIS’s brutality, itself a complex manifestation of endemic poverty, authoritarian politics, and the West’s Middle East policies. In one passage, a dead body rests in an arid desert as a dingy pick-up truck callously passes, the horizon dominated by a conflagration of burning oil wells spewing purplish-black smoke into toxic skies. It is a spectacle of disaster that holds life hostage to a living hell—without provisions, without hope, without escape. Here, one can begin to understand the warnings of Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, who points out in another scene how the children of millions of refugees in Lebanon’s expansive camps have no access to schools, grow up without optimism, and are thus vulnerable to exploitation and extremism. It is their future that is burning like the skies of Mosul. The film quotes the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in summing up the refugee’s zombie-like outlook that is reproduced over generations, its lines superimposed over a haunting full moon: “You killed me … and I forgot, like you, to die.”

Rather than simply dismiss Human Flow as only the most recent in a long line of liberal humanitarian portrayals, which, in playing to its viewers emotions and empathy do little to address the massive challenges of the situation, we should ask how might we work toward progress otherwise? Within the world of cinema, that would mean developing and supporting filmic analyses that advance radical investigations—radical in the etymological sense of getting to the roots of the matter, even if the interests of funders and distributors are called into question. That kind of investigation would open up transformative opposition to the structural causes of inequality that drive migration in the first instance. Of course when austerity economics and its expanding forms of indebtedness leave little room for cares beyond one’s immediate survival, that is admittedly no easy thing. Which is why cultural expressions like Human Flow, especially when pushed further and presented within open-access systems of distribution, hold real potential.

T. J. Demos is professor of visual culture at University of California, Santa Cruz, and Director of its Center for Creative Ecologies. He writes widely about contemporary art, global politics, and ecology, and is the author, most recently, of Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today (2017) and Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology (2016).

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