Ai WeiWei’s “Human Flow”

Abbigaile Gustafson
Staff Writer

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PC: Abbigaile Gustafson

People in life jackets; hundreds of orange life jackets, crammed into unstable boats, could be seen in the distance from the Grecian shore, anxiously waiting to come into contact with land. Watching this series of events unfold within the first few minutes of the film, the scenario became clear: these are refugees.

The people of many nations, languages, religions and ages who had been forced —

physically, in most cases — from their own land to flee to another, in search of refuge. They are however, unable to find refuge, and now, more than ever, they need it.

“Human Flow,” a film shown in the Weatherspoon Art Museum, directed by Ai WeiWei, unraveled the truth behind the international state of affairs with the growing refugee population. In recent years, many nations along the southern European coastline have seen an intense influx of people escaping the horrors of their own land, in search of safety for themselves and their families.

Throughout the movie, various statistics were captioned, one of them citing that more than 65 million people have been displaced from their own countries; an all-time high since World War II.  With a population that matches over a fifth of the U.S. population, we’re left to wonder: where are refugees going?

The European Union, however, has begun efforts to diminish the refugee population from increasing any further; with barbwire walls now spanning across borders, refugees find themselves walking across an entire country only to find that they have no access into the next. They’re trapped.

So, what happens to refugees? Scene after scene displayed impoverished refugee camps, full of paper-thin tents and prayers that someone will take them in. The film showed that disease runs rampant throughout refugee camps, that children are unable to go to school and that people stand in food lines for hours, only to receive a small cup of food.

“[They’re lacking] the most basic of human needs… what you’re looking at is injustice,” said Hagai El-dad, one of the directors of a human rights organization, who spoke in the film. It’s not a standard of living that any human should have to endure, but the mere thought of refugees returning to their homes, it seems, is too terrifying for them.

Tragically, it gets worse; with certain countries mandating that refugees are to leave or be arrested, and consequently, many are left with no choice but to be forced out of the places they’ve travelled to.

With posters saying “EU don’t send us back to hell,” one scene showed a crowd of refugees practically begging to stay, only to have police chase them away with tear gas and brutality. The home they had is a living nightmare; but the places they ran to, do not want them either. As one unidentified woman in the film said, “Where am I supposed to start a life?” That question, I’m afraid, is far from being answered.

A scene which struck me as particularly moving was when a father took the filming crew to what looked to be a field of mud. After moving closer to little piles of dirt, the camera crew and father stopped for a moment of silence.

He was standing next to graves. Shuffling through a series of identification cards with trembling hands, he listed off his son, his daughter-in-law and other loved ones who either drowned on the boat ride to Europe or died upon arrival. He had to take their bodies and bury them in an unfamiliar land; a tragedy that is sadly only one of many in his family. This man, with a heart full of anger and suffering at the loss of family and his home, is only one of the millions of refugees afflicted with the same agony.

The director, WeiWei, is an activist fighting to unveil the cruelties of humanity, superbly captured some of the major hardships for refugees that fail to be recognized. Refugees spend an average of 26 years away from their homes; not many people know what goes on during the beginning stages of finding refuge, but “Human Flow” provides an up-close-and-personal account from a variety of refugees. From encountering defeat again and again, WeiWei made this evident about the refugee population: they are incredibly resilient, and they deserve to be treated as humans instead of burdens.

Following the movie, after a brief moment of applause, a discussion lead by Dr. Jeremy Rinker, Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at UNCG, ensued. It opened with input on the audience’s impressions of the film.

Gordon Cathcart, a sophomore at UNCG, said, “All the camps, across the world, no matter where they were, whether they were in places like Jordan or the Gaza Strip, looked exactly the same as in Germany and Calais, where everyone was striving to get to in the first place.” The state of the camps was a commonality throughout the entire film; even in places that were seen as being better, refugees were still only given a small tent and cramped, unsanitary living spaces.

The discussion went on to address the scope and scale of the refugee displacement. Is it a problem that can be fixed? How do we tackle the issue of getting refugees back to their homes? The question produced various answers, but the fact is this: with over 65 million displaced, it will take years for that number to begin dwindling.

With the issue becoming more relevant in today’s news, we can only hope that conditions will improve for refugees and that they’ll be given the chance to live equally in the lands they seek refuge in.

The last scene in the film zoomed out on a display of life jackets, presumably representing those who lost their lives while trying to escape. How many more must there be before circumstances change?



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