Film Review: In Human Flow, Ai Weiwei Puts a Global Refugee Crisis on Screen

Rather than tell the story of a handful of refugees in a single location on the planet (and there are many to choose from), artist/activist Ai Weiwei (himself the subject of a couple docs in the last few years) has directed Human Flow, a work that captures the scope of the refugee crisis by going continent to continent to document as many hotspots as he can.

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

According to the film, more than 65 million people globally have been forced to leave their homes to escape climate change, famine or a level of persecution that would likely result in their death. Ai Weiwei took his small crew to 23 countries in a single year, capturing people leaving their homelands and people arriving somewhere new, where they are in all likelihood not wanted by the native populous.

Making use of drone cameras, the filmmakers visually depict just how massive certain refugee camps can be, or miles of humans migrating from one location to the next. Since Ai Weiwei is an artist first, he’s not attempting to make an unbiased work. He is frequently shown on camera getting deeply emotional about scenes of people suffering, being packed together, or simply without hope in locations such as Afghanistan, Greece, Italy, Kenya, Turkey, and even Mexico, where he plants himself on the U.S. side of the border and is immediately confronted by a militia border guard about his reason for being there. The moment is civil, but it speak volumes.

At times, the magnitude seems overwhelming and impossible to fathom, as refugees seek the basics of food, shelter and a degree of safety that doesn’t always exist in the face of nationalism groups that have cropped up around this issue, particularly in Europe. Every type of human suffering is on display, which I realize doesn’t sound like the most enticing thing to say to get you into the theater to watch this remarkable work.

As he often does in his art, Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow is a plea for acceptance, tolerance, a level of kindness that even the most charitable have likely never considered, and the breaking down of isolation. He asks the first-world nations to eject the “Us vs. Them” mentality and be more open. The film allows us to ride along with these refugees, searching for the smallest signs of hope. Sometimes they find it, and it’s like drops of water to a thirsty person. This is a movie whose core messages are not obtuse; it is unapologetically manipulative, and I don’t think the filmmaker would have it any other way.

Most importantly, it’s movie that is impossible to shake and will hopefully force you to see the world in a very different light. Well worth your time.

The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.