March 21, 2024
Peter Calder

Human Flow: A Palpable Worldly Experience (1 minute read)

Most things that come to mind when the word “documentary” comes up are simple visual one-on-one sit-down interviews, some archival photos moving across the screen, and maybe some landscapes.

Human Flow pushes the boundaries of the genre by taking a very different approach.

The story is about the worldwide refugee crisis that is happening right now. The film came out in 2017.

Ai Weiwei, the director, did an incredible job. His team travelled to 23 different countries, bringing you an intimate, up-close look into the impact of the people surrounding the crisis.

Mainly, it covers the extensive population travelling from the Middle East, trying to find sanctuary in Europe, and the harsh conditions of living through the journey.

Scale, something that is a large part of Dune (I wrote about last week), is shown in beautiful ways. In Dune, it was the huge structures built to be filmed.

In Human Flow, magnificent drone shots and landscapes show the huge number of people being impacted. I believe this was important for Ai Weiwei to show because the refugee crisis is not just in one small area or country. It is worldwide across multiple continents, affecting tens of millions, and through these wide visuals of drone shots, the viewer can feel the enormity of the scale.

I first watched this film back in 2017 when it was doing the festival circuit, and I still haven’t seen a documentary since that feels just as raw, real or intimate.

Another factor that helped drive these feelings upon watching was the crew and equipment. Ai Weiwei had a very small crew and used little equipment. It looked like it was a very much “run and gun” documentary, with a lot of the film shot on a smartphone.

Reflecting on it now, I can understand why they made this choice. When having these very close, intimate interactions with refugees and other subjects, it can be daunting to shove a huge thirty-pound camera in their faces.

With Ai Weiwei holding up his smartphone and having a conversation with these people, we can have more authentic moments of feeling. When choosing to cover a certain story or topic in documentary form or any form, it is important to get on the ground and as close and personal as possible.

The film crew walking, living and sleeping in and around all these different refugee camps and areas brings the viewer right down to earth into the story and transports us to the journey of these many different people and their stories.

In the film and media industry, there is always a lot of talk about “what that was shot on” and certain equipment versus others and different name-brand cameras versus others, and Human Flow is the perfect production to show how those things don’t necessarily matter or need to be the most important aspect of production, you can use different tools for different things, what’s around you.

In this case, specifically, using a smartphone for a lot of the filming worked more in their favour than if they used a bigger, more expensive setup or rig.