The biannual Adelaide Film Festival is here and it’s an exciting time for movie lovers in Adelaide. I bought a pass for five movies, and I selected Human Flow as my personal opening movie. Selecting a documentary also reflects my changing preference. I am less interested in romcoms and popcorn dramas, and I am intrigued by movies that will get me to think and revisit my values and stances on things. Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow certainly does that.
The documentary opens with a beautiful expanse of blue sea, with a speck of refugee boat breaking the beautiful monotony. So begins a stunning and heartbreaking poetic film, presenting the audience with facts and cases of some of the biggest humanitarian crisis that we’ve ever seen. We see the exasperation and hopelessness of the Syrians, the Rohingyas, the Eritreans, and the Kurds. I can almost see you retreating further away from the screen, or hovering over your browser – so you don’t need to read further. Whilst I consider myself as fairly compassionate and caring person, watching the documentary exposes my prejudice as well.
Some scenes show Syrians arriving on Lesvos island in Greece – immediately taking photos on their smartphones, smiling and posing. I could feel a rising disdain and judgment – surely these people are not true refugees if they can still smile, pose, and can afford mobile phones. In a split second, I was ashamed by that thought. I forgot that they were fellow humans who have the same rights to smile, to be relieved, and to be thankful – just like you and me.
Ai Weiwei is skilfull and careful not to hammer down a strong message to ‘convert’ the audience. He is in some of the scenes, talking to the refugees, treating them like fellow human beings – respecting them. He shows some confronting beautiful quotes and poems, including facts that there were only 11 countries with border fences during World War II – now, there are 70 countries. It made me realise that we have created gated communities – exclusive ‘country clubs’, perhaps. Despite the sick, the downtrodden, and the persecuted wailing and banging at the gates, those inside the gated community prefer to provide more money outside of the community – anything, other than letting them in, including perhaps giving more money so these people can just go away somewhere else. In a gated community, it is much easier to be compassionate to a neighbour whose house is burned down, than a family of five outside who are starving to death.
It’s a documentary that is necessary to see. It’s painfully beautiful and heartbreaking. We care more about transporting a poached tiger back to Africa because it’s a beautiful animal, and yet, we consider a husband, a wife, a child, broken by war – and desperate to find peace and a better life – as something not worth worrying about.
In the middle of the movie, I found myself looking at the watch. I thought, surely this movie will finish soon. It just seems to be one case after the other – it’s just way too much to take in. Then it occurred to me that this may be deliberate – to tell us that the whole crisis cannot be fit in into 90 minutes or 120 minutes of movies (don’t worry, the movie only goes for 140 minutes). To complain that the movie is too long, or meaningless, already reflects the limitation of our attitudes.
We want to be entertained – and we forget that the subject of the movie is our fellow humans.