Check it Out: Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow

January 17, 2018 | Revolution Newspaper |



(Available now for viewing online)

Filmed in 23 countries over two years the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei brings to the big screen the immense human scale of the worldwide refugee crisis.  Sixty-five million people at the time the film was made, are fleeing war, ethnic cleansing, environmental catastrophe, and that number is rising.  The film begins photographed from the air as a raft, floating through the blue of the Mediterranean sea and then crashes to earth, in a hand held camera moment of people tumbling wet, hungry, and shaken from dangerously overcrowded rafts.  Their sense of relief turns to a 60-day walk across Europe and a journey into statelessness, razor wire, rain, misery, loss, and the shelter of tents, makeshift camps, cubicles built in airport hangers and finally, for those turned away, expulsion into the permanent camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon where the average stay for a refugee is 26 years.

The film began in 2015 when Ai Weiwei was finally granted a passport.  In 2009 he was arrested and beaten and held for 81 days for creating art that put the names and faces of the over 5,000 school children who died in the Sichuan earthquake, mourning their loss and giving an international platform to the parents who were protesting shoddy government construction in a region where 7,000 classrooms collapsed.  After a four-year battle he was granted a passport and just happened to be on the Greek island of Lesbos at the start of what would become the exodus of a half million people.

Interviewed by Canadian TV, Ai Weiwei spoke to why he made this film, “It’s very hard not to act in such a crisis. As an artist you have to find your own way and your own language to respond to the situation. I always have to try and find a language to build up this kind of communication between people who are desperate and have no chance for their voice to be heard and then the people who are privileged and think this has nothing to do with our real life and turn their faces away. So as artist I always have to make this kind of argument and find a language to present my ideas.” (CBC News, September 27, 2017)

The film’s aerial photography gives witness to the destruction of Mosul by the U.S. in Iraq, to the journey of the Rohingya from Myanmar walking across the fields and rivers of Bangladesh, to sub-Saharan Africa where 26 percent of the world’s refugees are presently located, to the vast network of permanent camps stretching across the Middle East, and finally to the open-air prison of Gaza and the U.S.-Mexican border.  On the ground Ai Weiwei gives voice to the people living through this and to their hopes and their dignified determination to be treated as human beings.  Last year in New York City he premiered an installation where the middle class clothes of the Syrian refugees that were collected from the belongings left on the shores of Lesbos, were washed, dried, ironed, displayed, and preserved for New Yorkers to experience the obvious connections to life they recognize in their own city.

Ai Weiwei’s humanitarian vision has implicit criticism of the West. His work is not intended to offer causes or solutions but this crisis is examined with an ability to show his audience the magnitude and scale of what is taking place in a very short period of time as well as an intimate look at what it is like to be someone living through this. As a reviewer in England put it—it sits like a cannon ball on your heart.

As someone watching this with Bob Avakian’s words “Internationalism—The Whole World Comes First” ringing in my ears it rips you away from the 24-hour news cycle where events of such magnitude are quickly buried—allowing you to take in the ramifications of a world where the whole post-World War II world is unraveling, where the crimes of what your country is doing to the planet and the scale of human misery it is creating are brought home. This film is witness to a few short years from 2015 to 2017, only a few of the opening pages of what climate change and the unending wars for U.S. and its Western allies’ domination of the world have already wrought.

A crisis of this magnitude, a crisis as existential as this cannot be understood much less solved without another kind of lens that zooms in and zooms out being used.  Ai Weiwei went from being the darling of those who tore down the Cultural Revolution and restored capitalism in China to being a public enemy because he persisted in honestly examining what capitalism was doing to China. People who truly want to stand with the people also have the responsibility to look squarely at the system that is causing this, and both the reality and the morality of persisting with such a moribund way of life, when that system and that way of life is not just holding humanity back but threatening its very existence. This too often goes unexamined because the first wave of communist revolutions has been dismissed and put aside—leaving people to see no other option when there is another way the world COULD be. There is no one else—anywhere on this planet—who has done the work that Bob Avakian has done on this, no one else who has laid the basis in theory and in strategy for a whole new wave of revolution to transform the world towards the goal of eliminating all exploitation and oppression. Watching this film makes you appreciate through the eyes of an artist like Ai Weiwei just what we have in a communist leader like Bob Avakian. It makes you feel both the imperative and the reality that this cannonball COULD be and MUST be lifted from the hearts of humankind.




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