Small boats spilling people into the waves. The flickering lights of cell phones. Broken buildings. Walking. Waiting. Walking. Walking. Walking. Waiting.
Single words and phrases, rather than complete sentences, seem to capture the essence of Human Flow, the film by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei about the 65 million displaced people around the world today. Perhaps this is because the experience of being a refugee is the essence of incompleteness, being ultimately homeless, stateless, without identity.
When we saw this movie recently it began without subtitles, due to a technical glitch. So we experienced the first half hour somewhat as refugees experience their journeys, not quite knowing what is going on or what is being said, and we assumed that was Ai Weiwei’s intention. However, once the technical difficulties were fixed, subtitles appeared and we learned a bit more of the individual stories and the brief interviews with aid workers and UN officials.
Human Flow presents a spectacle hard to look away from, mesmerizing streams of people on the move: South Sudanese escaping civil war, Rohingya fleeing Myanmar, Palestinians living in refugee camps for 70 years, Somalis in the biggest camp of them all, Dadaab in Kenya. Ai spends the most time with the largest group of refugees today, Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans leaving chaotic war zones and seeking to enter Europe. An aid worker in the film notes that it was in Europe, after World War II, that the current definition of a refugee was formulated: a person with a well-founded fear of persecution who is unable or unwilling to return to the country of his nationality.
Included in Ai’s journey is the wall the United States has built along its border with Mexico and the flow of people pushing against it. Seventy countries, representing every continent, have built walls on their borders, he notes: besides the U.S., there are walls in Hungary, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, India, Morocco, and South Korea, among many others.
Though Ai Weiwei is compassionate at every step of the way in his year of filming in 23 countries, the suffering of the travelers is not his primary focus. Rather he is acting as a witness and making us witnesses along with him, pushing us to ask ourselves what we will do in response to this phenomenon.
For it is inevitable. As a UN worker interviewed in the film says, as long as there are inequalities of opportunity and resources, people will continue to move in search of a better life for themselves and their families.
Nor are any of us immune to its consequences. In communities where basic needs of clean water, food, and medicine are unmet, diseases arise that can spread across the globe within months. Generations of children raised without hope or education will see violence as their only option.
Finally, this is not a faraway tragedy. The unexpected – disasters natural or man-made – can happen to any of us at any time, placing you and me among the displaced ourselves. Here in Portland, Oregon, the tents of the homeless, another population involuntarily on the move, are pitched only a few blocks from our house.
I came away from Ai Weiwei’s film with not only sorrow for those distant others who have lost their homes and the futures they expected, but also the recognition that those others are us. Their crisis is our crisis. As the Syrian astronaut Mohammed Fares, now a refugee himself, says at the conclusion, we have to learn to live together on this earth despite our strongly held beliefs and preferences. There is no room for us not to get along.
The question for each of us now is what we can do, should do, and must do.
Nancy Dollahite is the author of Field Notes from Sichuan, to be published by Blue Ear Books.