Crisis and Confusion: A Review of Human Flow by Ai Weiwei

By Ryan Woods 

Documenting Crisis 

Sunlight dances on the quiet Mediterranean Sea, glinting on the waters that stretch out towards the horizon, going on to touch the great expanse of sky in an endless beam of blue.  Silence, save for the waves softly lapping against the warm rocks of the Greek island of Lesbos, and the gentle purr of the small boat, crammed with hundreds of refugees, all hungry, bewildered, and scared. As they disembark, some struggling to walk, each is wrapped in a foil blanket and invited to join the huddle of the shivering and shimmering bodies beginning to form.  ‘Hot tea?’ we hear from our director, renowned filmmaker and artist Ai Weiwei, as he seeks to help a young man shaking almost uncontrollably.  Accepting the offer, he sips the tea and tells his story, the first of many heart-breaking accounts in this powerful presentation of the world’s worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.

human flow boat

Refugees in life jackets on a rescue vessel. Source: still from the trailer.

Human Flow is a truly remarkable and beautiful film, offering an unfettered and raw view of the experiences of refugees, of their perilous journeys across hostile lands in search of safety, of their attempts to construct a new life in refugee camps that have grown to the size of cities, and ultimately, as them as individuals.  Spliced from over 900 hours of footage, the viewer receives an often confused mix of information.  Beginning in Lesbos, we’re suddenly transported to Bangladesh to hear of the pain of the Rohingya Muslims, before returning to Greece, this time to its heavily militarised border with Macedonia.


Ai Weiwei and a Syrian refugee, the first to be interviewed in the film. Source:

The film spans over twenty countries and numerous crises, including the Gaza Strip, the US-Mexican border, and the Calais ‘Jungle’ in a bewildering bombardment of emotion.  Coupled with quotes from poets, startling statistics, and newspaper headlines from several sources, with no narration or signposting, it at times makes for confusing viewing, however, this is the film’s very intention.  The refugee crisis is itself a confusing and seemingly unsolvable mess; a tangled and unstoppable disaster.  It is evident, as outlined by former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, that ‘we are facing the biggest refugee and displacement crisis of our time’ (United Nations, 2016), therefore confusion and uncertainty are likely, even necessary, responses.

Drones as Methodology

Drones have shown themselves to have numerous domestic benefits, from supporting emergency services to delivering packages, and the film industry is no different.  A number of directors and companies have embraced the drone to conquer the skies, encouraged in part through the relaxation of laws and technological innovation.  Closely following in this new trend, Ai uses drones substantially to film the wreckages of cities and the vast open spaces of often inhospitable environments, achieving what the camera crew and Ai’s iPhone alone often can’t: to capture and understand the sheer scale of the refugee crisis.  Nowhere is the drone more effectively used than in the film’s final few seconds.  Beginning with a close up of a single lifejacket, the drone rises, revealing more and more in a seemingly never-ending mound.  We’re provided no context, no information on where this pile of jackets is, or whether they have even saved a life.  As the drone hovers sombrely upwards, the jackets multiplying as it does, each soon becomes indistinguishable from the next in a fused heap.  The striking symbolism is evident, Ai’s point clear.


Drone footage of thousands of lifejackets. Source:

The use of drones in film making presents a problem.  Critics of military drones often argue that the physical detachment of a soldier from the fighting disrupts traditional notions of the battlefield and conventional war.  As Chamayou states, ‘when there is a great distance between the soldiers and the victims…the soldiers ‘can pretend they are not killing human beings’ (Chamayou, 2015, p.115), they can detach themselves from the situation and treat the victim as nothing more than a target.  Drones in films risk creating a similar problem, swapping a weapon for a camera, the soldier for the camera operator, and the victim for the subject.  Targeted killings become the discerning effects of ‘discorrelation’, where images ‘undermine the distance of perspective, i.e. the spatial or quasi-spatial distance and relation between phenomenological subjects and the objects of their perception’ (Denson, 2016). In this case, it is all too easy for the aerial shots, in attempting to capture the breadth and size of the issue, to lose the individual character of each person involved, to compound the immeasurability of the crisis and conform to the understanding of refugees as a single mass; a ceaseless flow of disruption.  Ai must therefore be commended on not falling into over-reliance on the use of this impressive technology, making sure to complement the drone shots with a littering of incredibly emotional and personal interviews, which succeeds in humanising the individuals and successfully defending their plight.


Ai Weiwei’s previous work has earned him enormous praise and intrigue, from his involvement in the Beijing National Stadium, used for the 2008 Olympic Games, to Kui Hua Zi, a room of over 100 million individually carved porcelain sunflower seeds.  It is his previous work on the refugees, however, that has shown Ai as a truly remarkable an assiduous artist, causing both celebration and controversy, from his recreation of the picture of a drowned Syrian child on a beach, to an art installation featuring thousands of clothes worn by refugees.  Human Flow, loaded with Ai’s trademark character and meticulous presentation, offering luscious shots of beautiful scenery, harrowing scenes of poverty and hopelessness, and interviews of striking emotion and poignancy, must therefore be added to this already impressive body of work.  It is, in short, a breath-taking burst of emotion and awe, a story of tragedy and struggle, but also one of hope and faith.  Whilst it is not unique, Human Flow holds its own against the most revered and acclaimed works, representing a powerful addition to the roster of documentaries demanding immediate attention and cooperation towards the world’s refugee crises.

You can watch the trailer for Human Flow here. 


Chamayou, G. (2015) Drone Theory, London: Penguin Books

Denson, S. (2016), ‘Crazy Cameras, Discorrelated Images, and the Post-Perceptual Mediation of Post-Cinematic Affect’ in Denson, S. and Leyda, J. (eds.), Post-Cinema: Theorising 21st-Century Film [online], available at, accessed 29/01/18

United Nations, (2016) ‘Refugee Crisis about Solidarity, Not Just Numbers, Secretary-General Says at Event on Global Displacement Challenge’ [online], available at, accessed 29/01/18

Ryan WoodsRyan is an MSc Geopolitics and Security student at Royal Holloway, joining the department after completing his undergraduate degree in History and International Relations.  His academic interests include modern history, state surveillance and drones.  When not studying you’ll usually find him drinking a beer. Follow Ryan on Twitter:

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