A name, a face, a hope: how mass movement of people should be understood in the detail of human life
“Being a refugee is more than a political status, it is the most pervasive kind of cruelty that can be exercised against a human being. You are forcibly robbing this human being of all aspects that would make human life not just tolerable but meaningful in many ways.”
“I’ve been roaming endlessly with my son for sixty days now. Nobody has shown us the way. Where am I supposed to start my new life?”
All taken from Human Flow (2017)
Filmed across 23 countries, Human Flow captures a global mass exodus, droves of people leaving home and entering into this horrific slipstream of human traffic. Produced by Chinese conceptual artist, Ai Weiwei, the feature length documentary journeys from Mosul to Calais, from the US-Mexico border to Iraq, Berlin and Jordan, hearing the stories of those forcibly removed from their homeland because of war, persecution, regimes, or just a desperate hope that somewhere, anywhere, must be able to offer stability, security, safety. They move, aboard trucks, on foot, in unfit boats, wade through rivers, cross deserts, stay in makeshift camps, tents, a painful purgatory we can’t understand – they keep going, they move onwards, in the only direction they can.
Stream the full film on Amazon and iTunes.
At the end of 2019, as a result of conflict, violence, persecution, human rights violations, or events seriously disturbing public order, 79.5 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide, 26 million of those people are refugees. Yet last year, only 107,800 of those were resettled into 26 countries. This leaves the overwhelming majority of those people not only stateless but status less too. Unofficial, uncertified, unable to progress without taking inconceivable risk.
In these great numbers, it’s easy for the Western media to de-individualise the refugee crisis, no great equaliser in stories that show similarity not separation. Instead, it’s a headline, dehumanised images of life jackets, tents filling Greek islands, crowds stopped at land borders. It’s not about common ground it’s a about division, us and them, them and us. And when 9,000 of the children who arrived in Europe between January and December 2019 were alone, how is it that this doesn’t become a galvanising call to show compassion, exercise humanity, be welcoming?
Isn’t it just circumstance and good fortune that dictates whether we are forced to flee? Born into a country by the sheer luck of chromosomes, that offers us sanctuary and protection. This othering makes it dangerously easy to detach the pain and suffering from being human to something else, almost dramatised, not real. We see rescued boats, long lines of exhausted faces, makeshift camps in train stations, belongings strewn across sandy roads or in crashing waves, but it’s not until the body of three-year old Alan Kurdi from Syria washed ashore on a beach near the Turkish resort of Bodrum that #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik started trending: humanity washed ashore.
Seeking out the stories of individuals and their own experience is the only sure way of understanding this flooding movement of people in a way that is connected and conscious. Although it’s happening on great scale, in inconceivable numbers, it’s vital we hear the voices, the names, the reasons, the anecdotes, the hopes, dreams and wishes that belong to those who embark on these unimaginable journeys. Only then can we begin to comprehend the complexity of the experience.
Each person has a life to leave behind – their sacred memories and emblems of home. Their world became destructive and broken, but it was still theirs, and despite the raw danger there is still a degree of comfort in the familiar, the known. There is no possible way of rebuilding a sense of the familiar during the journey to freedom, when each day brings a new fear, a new obstacle to pass. But when some sort of safety is found, it’s not just about finding the physical cornerstones of life, a house, a job, a school, it’s about learning to find some sense of home in an environment that is completely unintelligible as home. The sounds are different, pitch, volume all unusual, the smells – the very comfort of home is lost and despite the great relief of safety, there must be grief too.
It’s exactly the paradox that our next collection, Lost and Found, focuses on. The stories chosen for the collection are those that carefully detail the constant flux between losing and finding. From the distinct and concrete, to the indistinct – wisps of homesickness you can’t quite put your finger on, something as simple as how a carpet feels under bare feet.
We can’t know how gut wrenching and completely devastating a decision to flee must be but we can be better allies by watching films like this one and reading their stories. Replacing ‘refugee’ with a name, a face, a hope.
About the filmmaker
Ai Weiwei is renowned for making strong aesthetic statements that resonate with timely phenomena across today’s geopolitical world. From architecture to installations, social media to documentaries, Ai uses a wide range of mediums as expressions of new ways for his audiences to examine society and its values. Recent exhibitions include: Ai Weiwei: Resetting Memories at MARCO in Monterrey, Ai Weiwei: Bare Life at the Mildred Lane Kemper Museum in St. Louis, Ai Weiwei at the K20/K21 in Dusseldorf, and Good Fences Make Good Neighbors with the Public Art Fund in New York City.
Ai was born in Beijing in 1957 and currently resides and works in Berlin. Ai is the recipient of the 2015 Ambassador of Conscience Award from Amnesty International and the 2012 Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent from the Human Rights Foundation.