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  • Jared Huizenga

‘Human Flow’ has issues that will detract from its important message

Documentary filmmaker Ai Weiwei wants you to feel bad about the plight of refugees around the globe and he’s not shy about it in his latest effort, “Human Flow.”



The film focuses mostly on the influx of migrants from countries including Syria, Iraq, and Somalia, to places like Turkey and Greece, before hopefully making their way to other places throughout Europe.

We hear stories directly from those refugees – their harrowing journeys, the dismal settings that caused their migration, their increasing desperation as they wait for they turn to move from refugee camps to new permanent homes.

We hear from the humanitarian workers helping to pull migrants from the Mediterranean Sea, those who provide food, water, and healthcare to those in the camps.

We’re also treated to a smorgasbord of stunning imagery – both wondrous and painful – that in my opinion is even more effective than the spoken words accompanying them.

All of those things add up to a powerful and moving documentary that’s certain to further galvanize proponents of fast-tracking refugee processing and even those that open borders across the world.

Despite its positives, “Human Flow” does have some issues that keep it from reaching the level of outstanding.


Director Ai Weiwei in "Human Flow," an Amazon Studios release. Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios.


First, at 2 hours and 20 minutes long, it’s a lot to take in. Obviously, that time frame isn’t enough to even scratch the surface of the issue, but it’s also long enough to turn away people that might otherwise be interested and aren’t already invested in the topic. If someone is committing 140 minutes to a movie, it’s almost assured that it’s something they’re already interested in. New eyes don’t seem likely.

Second, after focusing almost exclusively on the Middle East and Europe for the majority of the film, near the end it transports to the U.S.-Mexico border. Not that it’s not an issue there as well, but it doesn’t fit into the rest of the narrative. It felt forced and unnatural – almost as if it were only slapped on the end to receive North American distribution – and took away from the overall effectiveness of the story.

Finally, while the film does an excellent job of the telling stories of and gaining sympathy/awareness for the plight of those refugees, it – as many documentaries – is very slanted to the point the filmmaker is trying to make.

We’re told and shown that countries are tightening their immigration and refugee policies, but we’re never really told why. Is it due to a lack of money, space, resources? Is it pushback against religious and ethnic groups? We can all probably draw our own conclusions, but hearing from the governments and citizens pushing against the influx of migrants – rather than the humanitarian workers who want nothing more than to escort them across an open border – would have given the story a more complete and unbiased feel. And who knows … maybe the reasons those people gave wouldn’t be “good enough” and people would push back against them.

Overall, “Human Flow” is OK, but its negatives aren’t likely to draw new eyes and voice to this important issue.

“Human Flow” is now in theaters. Locally it is playing exclusively at Landmark Lagoon Cinema.

★★1/2 of ★★★★★

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