In 1989, when the Berlin wall came down, there were 11 walls separating nations around the world. Today there are almost 70. That was one of the more stunning statistics flashing across the screen during Ai Weiwei’s masterful and evocative documentary, Human Flow.
Charting the journey undertaken by over a million refugees, Weiwei was armed with his Iphone and a two-person film crew, and ostensibly followed Syrian refugees from the coast in Greece on their long and arduous journey to the promised land: Germany. He made some stops in Palestine, Bangladesh and Kenya, but the focus was the Syrian crisis.
I spent much of my childhood abroad, easily shifting between identities as a Canadian and Kenyan. I was able to move from Canada to Ghana, then England without much fuss, as my parents were diplomats.
I grew up in an era of unprecedented interconnectivity. The end of the Cold War was greeted with loud proclamations about the end of history and the new world order – capitalist globalization was the mot du jour.
This certainly framed my outlook on the world- buttressed by the notion of the world shrinking and fuelled by the growth of the internet. My father loves to tell the same little tale: “you can now sit under a coconut tree with wifi and a printer and print off a document that I wrote in the ’70s in Uganda because someone digitized it.” I find this to be a ringing endorsement of the digital era.
However, Human Flow was a necessary rebuke to this rose-tinted view of global affairs. One scene was especially instructive. There was a group of over ten thousand refugees in a makeshift camp at a run-down old train station in the hinterland of Greece. The Macedonian border had just been closed. And it started to rain. Just as your despair (as the viewer mind you- lord knows what it’s actually like) sets in, a train whooshes by. Carrying oil. From the Middle East. Past the border.
It’s much easier for goods to travel across national boundaries than real people. I watched the movie in a theatre on King Street. Now I get to sit here, relatively comfortable, in Canada, and write about how “moving and evocative” WeiWei’s film was- while never truly understanding what it means to be a refugee.
I think that is the point of his film. He is trying to understand and convey what it means to be a refugee. It’s something that’s very close to him- he lives in exile in Germany, but in relative comfort.
There was a scene in a camp, when Weiwei jokingly traded passports with a Syrian man, and then agreed to trade his warehouse apartment in Berlin for this man’s tent. He also understands what it means to sit in a theatre and watch this from afar- we’re his audience.
It is a documentary of resonant moments:
There was one part when Weiwei was walking in the countryside in a human train of hundreds of people, with their entire lives on their backs and their children in their arms- I turned to my friend in the theatre and said, “That really brings new meaning to the whole idea of backpacking across europe eh?” To which we exchanged dark and knowing glances.
The human train reached a river. There was no bridge. The younger men got in the river to act as barricades and balancing posts for the old and the young. The water raced by. Someone fell, their bags spinning downriver, never to be seen again.
I’d seen the pictures of refugees in camps, or wandering the hinterland, but I’d never quite seen it like that. I’ve backpacked Europe- like many fortunate and wealthy folk are able to. I’ve spent months on the move, walking every day. It’s legitimately exhausting. I can’t even begin to actually imagine what it would be like as a refugee without a home to go back to.
There was a scene with a mother, who couldn’t even bear to face the camera as she elucidated her experience, “I’ve been wandering the desert for 60 days with my child. I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what to do. Nobody is telling me what to do.”
And that’s the thing.
Imagine, for a second, America does indeed go full dystopia on us, our institutions crumble, and we have to leave our homes. Where would you go? What would you do?
The documentary demonstrates the fragility of our lives, and how necessary empathy is. We’re so quick to dismiss refugees, and other global problems with the old not-in-my-backyard wave of a hand. But these are people like you and I. People who didn’t want to leave. They didn’t choose to leave their homes.
One of the men at a camp in Jordan said as much, “It is not an easy decision to leave your home.” They had to leave their homes that were being bombed every day.
The film forces you to imagine being in that situation. Your normal life turned upside down by a war you have literally no control over. What do you do? Where do you go? Will you be helped?
The film doesn’t leave much room for optimism or doubt. As a Turkish academic put it, “You have a whole generation of people growing up without a state and without proper education, that’s a recipe for radicalization.”
The refugee crisis is growing. With global warming and economic inequality the numbers of refugees around the world will only keep going up. We’ve been building barriers and walls at an unprecedented rate,all the while the world is shrinking. Yet here in Canada, we’ve kept our borders relatively open and our social services relatively intact. But, do we need to do more?
By Rashid Mohiddin