Sharing the Journey With the World’s Refugees

The documentary Human Flow tackles the global crisis.

Millions of people worldwide are fleeing war, persecution and poverty.
Millions of people worldwide are fleeing war, persecution and poverty. (photo: Amazon Studios)

A little over a month ago, Pope Francis launched a two-year campaign on behalf of migrants and refugees called “Share the Journey” — sponsored by Caritas Internationalis, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Charities USA — seeking to promote understanding of the millions of displaced persons fleeing war, persecution and poverty.

Pope Francis wants to promote what he has often called a “culture of encounter.” In the context of “Share the Journey,” a culture of encounter means getting to know migrants and refugees as persons and not just politically charged abstractions in the news. More broadly, the “Share the Journey” website encourages us to “share their journey by walking with them in prayer and support.”

Watching Ai Weiwei’s documentary Human Flow in theaters or on Amazon streaming is not a substitute for getting to know migrants and refugees. One cannot foster or participate in a culture of encounter merely by watching a film.

A documentary can, though, promote understanding and help viewers begin to perceive the individual stories behind the political debates. Those open to walking with displaced persons “in prayer and support” may find watching Human Flow an aid to these goals. It could even lead to more openness to a culture of encounter in the full sense.

The film begins with thousands of refugees plucked by United Nations’ rescue teams from the Aegean Sea and bundled into tent cities on the Greek island of Lesvos. Over the next 140 minutes, Ai takes us to Bangladesh, Kenya, Iraq, Israel, France, the United States, Mexico and others — a total of 23 countries and more than 40 refugee camps. 

Worldwide, more than 65 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes, more than at any time since the Second World War. Millions now live in refugee camps, often in appalling conditions. Far more live in urban environments, where they may lack basic services, including access to health care and education.

If the global refugee crisis seems like too immense a problem to wrap one’s head around, Ai isn’t interested in narrowing his focus. Going for scope over depth, Human Flow isn’t a definitive study of the problem, but it offers an incomparable starting point for further discussions.

As in other film projects, Ai blends elements of art film, conventional documentary, political commentary and performance art. Overhead drone footage offers impressionistic images of desperation and suffering abstracted as geometry and physics. Wordless tracking shots through bombed-out urban landscapes remind us that life in tent cities facing closed borders is not the natural condition of the displaced masses.

Frequent onscreen text ranges from Wikipedia-type background and stats to scrolling news media headlines to literary excerpts from Middle-Eastern poets, Buddhist scripture and other texts.

There are talking-head interviews with U.N. workers, analysts and officials, conversations and portrait shots of refugees, and quite a bit of Ai himself interacting with his subjects, at once anthropologist, activist and entertainer. One sequence cuts from a pan across a lineup of refugees to a second point of view depicting Ai and his cameraman filming the first shot, as if to underscore Ai’s constant presence even when he isn’t oncreen.

Ai can credibly claim the right to be more than a chronicler here, with his long history of politically charged art and outspoken activism and the consequences he has faced, from being hospitalized after an alleged beating by Chinese police to being arrested and imprisoned for months, held under house arrest and blocked from leaving China.

Yet the film’s disparate tones don’t always work, either in concert or individually. A bantering moment with Ai and a Syrian refugee stuck in the Balkans, jokingly pretending to trade passports, feels like the opposite of the solidarity Ai is presumably aiming for. Where a clumsier filmmaker’s work might rely on exploitative, invasive shock value — what’s been called “poverty porn” — Ais more artful vision aestheticizes suffering, to uneven effect. 

One haunting theme that comes up repeatedly in conversations with refugees is the idea that life was once good — that these people were all right, even self-sufficient, before being driven from their homes. Now they stand in line for hours waiting for a cup of soup. A young boy in Turkey runs in circles babbling to himself for lack of anything else to do. Adolescents warehoused in hangars in Berlin face day after day of empty boredom.

Human Flow takes us into ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq; into Lebanon, which has welcomed so many Syrian refugees that they make up more than a third of the population; and into Turkey, which Europe, souring on openness to refugees, has paid off to take back millions of Syrians without granting them refugee status or any guarantees for the future.

The talking heads offer perspective, but the refugees land the most telling blows. “I’d like to see the leaders stay here one night,” a woman bitterly says, referring to a tent city near the border of Syria and Jordan, where refugees live with snakes, spiders and disease. “Every time I see a train, I ask God if we can leave here.” (Many of the refugees are Muslim; we do see representatives of the Christian East, singing before a cross and a large image of the Blessed Virgin.)

In his meandering, insistent way, Ai makes a compelling case that empathy and responsibility are being eroded by apathy, self-interest and xenophobia — though he limits the scope, and perhaps the persuasiveness, of his inquiry by avoiding any discussion of the impact on host nations of taking in refugees in large numbers.

Human Flow is content to make the case, entirely valid as far as it goes, that many nations should be doing much more than they are. Although no names are named, it’s clear that the leading culprit is the United States, which, despite its wealth and land, is woefully parsimonious and grudging about admitting refugees.

One of Ai’s most disarming tricks is to turn occasionally from the plight of humans to that of animals, from a lone cow wandering the deserted streets of an Iraqi city to a hungry tiger that made its way into Gaza via the smuggling tunnels from Egypt to Gaza and is cared for by the Palestinians until the film’s one real happy ending, as everyone works together to ensure that the tiger is relocated and set free. Why can’t we work together to ensure more human happy endings?

Catholic teaching affirms a natural right to emigrate from one’s country to pursue a better life, a right that cannot be abrogated by the state. The Church is more cautious, though, when speaking about immigration rights. States do have the right to regulate their borders and their internal life and can make practical decisions that control and limit immigration.

Yet more than 20 years ago, on World Migration Day, Pope St. John Paul II asked a simple but powerful question: What is the right to emigrate worth without a corresponding right to immigrate?

Are the rights of refugees in camps adequately respected by current U.S. policy? What about the rights of immigrants who are already here?

Perhaps most pressingly, what can I do? Now that I think about it, there are things I can do. And I’m going to start.

I’ve seen any number of films that have given me a bigger perspective on an issue or a problem in the world. I could count on one hand the films that have moved me to take some kind of positive action. Human Flow is one of those few.

Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.
He was recently welcomed into the New York Film Critics Circle.


Caveat Spectator: A disturbing image of a murdered child; references to ethnic cleansing, rape, etc. Teens and up.