Ways of Seeing: Ai Weiwei’s ‘Human Flow’ and the Crisis of Humanity

While on student exchange at the University of Sydney, I started working at the University call centre as a student caller. The aim of the game was to try to persuade people to donate to university initiatives as part of its desire to be seen as an institution prioritising social inclusion and “tackling issues beyond the classroom.” A particularly important fund was the Refugee Language Program, one that I always pushed on the phones. It ran classes on Saturdays teaching Refugees English and offering them support by facilitating CV and writing workshops. However, perhaps most importantly, it provided a welcoming environment and atmosphere of communication and warmth for people who had suffered some of the worst abuses against humankind I have ever heard. The program was completely funded by the donations we received from calling; receiving no financial backing from the government or from the University itself. The very existence of this program therefore depended on the few dollars here and there we could fish out of often less than willing alumni.

It was a rewarding job but be warned, folks: make sure your skin is thick for this kind of work and do not take rejection too personally. While I spoke to so many inspiring people, there was also a number which were very apathetic, to say the least. One of the most demoralising calls I ever had was with a man, who while I was talking about the merits of the program, had hushed me responding: “Yes, yes, I know all that. But I believe that charity starts at home.” Comments like this while working at the call centre reiterated that the way refugees were viewed and talked about was often product of people’s ignorance surrounding the ongoing struggle of refugees and the extent of their suffering.

Amidst all of this ruminating; feeling through the countless no pledges that my words were falling on deaf ears, the Sydney Biennale, a festival and haven of contemporary art, arrived. It was here that I fell into the arms of Ai Weiwei’s “Human Flow.” With a two hour and twenty minute running time, rather than an embrace, this film about the traumatic experience of refugees worldwide, grips and shakes you, rattles you to the bone. Moving through twenty-three countries, Weiwei captures the scale and gravity of the crisis as he passes through unrelentingly from one encampment to another. The amount of displaced people in the world now amounts to what is estimated by the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees at an unimaginable, 68.5 million people. For a mind to comprehend, to actually see what that number really means, to see the individual among the mass, is almost impossible.

The power of this film therefore is in its ability to give you sight. Ai Weiwei shows images of people as they wander through the world; in the limbo of uncertainty and overwhelmed by the constant absence of security and sanctuary. The art of his storytelling, encapsulating the lived life; the journeys, the ups downs and all arounds of these individuals on their road to nowhere, is one of the most powerful ways of sharing and breaching the distance between us, one that I had always found difficult to truly articulate over the phones. In that cinema theatre, as you witness, you find that you see the world as he has seen it, as Weiwei demands it must be seen. Here, subsumed in this act of seeing, Weiwei has the power to tell their story, showing you a world you have never seen before. The filmmaker and the artist’s voice employed in this way is a moving and revolutionary device of communication.

The film emphasises the immensity of the crisis, so overwhelming almost to the point of absurdity; as an onslaught of images of depravity, of loss and of personal tragedy, are recounted without a break for air. Weiwei shows us shots from drones; the audience is placed high above and so far away that the people below wander like insects, faceless and unknowable. These images are stitched together with face to face interviews with the refugees themselves, reminding us of what we sometimes fail to see. From the muddy makeshift camps, countless faces stare back, break down, and search. The eyes of men and women, of children; look to you. The weight of their eyes bearing down upon you as you watch, returning their gaze from the comfort of the cinema, inspired such a state of self-admonishment that many people who were at the viewing had to leave for twenty minutes to compose themselves, taking a minutes reprieve from the film’s imploring call for help and the shame of their privilege and silence.

The image of a dead body, a maimed child outside Mosul, flashes across the screen, it is filmed without sentiment, as if the body were nothing but a stone in the sand. We as the audience are forced to look as the camera moves passed them, motionless and forgotten by the rest of the world. I could feel the image’s residue on my eyelids, burnt there to remind me that I am not allowed to be silent or to look away. Ai Weiwei moves us by showing us what it means to live as a refugee, as a person without a home, without a country, often trapped with no way back and no way forward.

Ai Weiwei himself powerfully encapsulated what is so loudly stated on the screen when he said: “There is no refugee crisis, only a human crisis. In dealing with refugees, we have lost our very basic values. In this time of uncertainty we need more tolerance, compassion and trust for each other…” It is never more felt than in this act of seeing, the stories of these people who have suffered so beyond what the human spirit can bear; their lives out with their control have had to bear the weight of wars waged by others, the displacement of destruction, of climate change, of human greed. In seeing, one cannot claim ignorance. Ai Weiwei’s vision, his eyes, look at this world and judge no individual, they show you what the cost of closed borders is, of what “charity reserved for those at home” means. The crisis is not a number and it is not a tabloid headline; it is the experience and the life or death of millions of people waiting outside the fortress of Europe, it is those washed up on the coasts of Bangladesh, on the beaches of Turkey and Greece, it is those “lucky” enough to have made it to Berlin’s Templhof hangar who live still on the periphery of society. Not enough is being done.

Every call at the call centre I made after I saw the film, I could only talk about the Refugee Language Program. With every call, I told the stories of the people, of the individuals out there lost in the world, still out there in the cold, in the dirt; I’d talk of the child slain and discarded in the sand. I will say to you what I said to them. Go watch the film, talk about what you see, play it at your universities, set up screenings in your flat, share the stories in your workplace, and remember what you have seen. Then do something. No one can do everything, but utilise the gifts you have. Write about what’s happening in the world, sing about it, paint the hues of falling suns over refugee camps , create art that changes how the world sees refugees, direct plays and performances that raise the call, organise events, sign a petition, volunteer. Let yourself be led by the compassion inspired in your big blusterous heart. Yes, no one can do everything, but everyone can do something. While we allow people to be treated this way, going about our lives without tackling the vilification of refugees by our governments, the media and the system itself, without giving them home, every one of those faces, and all of that suffering, that’s on us.

[Jude Mckechnie]

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