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Exodus Catch 22

Human Flow
Regissør: Ai Weiwei

Chinese contemporary artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei tackles the life-and-death frenzy of technicolor homeless human hordes.


A helicopter lights up in the dark sea in search of people. An overloaded flight boat. Frozen people are helped ashore and wrapped in blankets. A Greek gig ferry that does not stop people from flowing. Yes, you've seen it before – we've all seen it before. But not in such a splendor of color, and not on such a scale as in Human Flow. The film shows an inexhaustible, overwhelming and massive amount of people operating towards what they believe is safety and survival. 65 millions of people are fleeing war, persecution and poverty today (UN figures from 2016).

Weiwei let us meet with various representatives, including UNCHR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees), who talk about how the climate crisis and escalating conflicts are constantly increasing the number of people on the run. Weiwei seduces us with spectacular filming. He builds layers upon layers of impressions of a huge human exodus in a way that has never been done before. He paints with a broad, disturbing and beautifying brush. Why this emphasis on beauty, many of the viewers of the movie wondered. The beauty beats us. But does it do anything more?

Human monolith. An infinite number of included refugees along a Greek highway. Camera lets us see the raging river as they backward. A few brave ones pull out – only to be robbed of shoes and backpacks by the strong current. The next scene is astonishing: The refugees form a chain in the waterfall that reaches them to the neck as they cling to one another. People stand close together in a tight vertical monolith against the water masses. The scene grabs me in such a way that I want it never to end. Just seconds later, Weiwei cut out.

Are there Chinese cultural codes that keep Weiwei constantly adding distance to the film? That emotions are held down?

Weiwei has filmed in 23 countries. People on the run are set against each other. The refugees ask: "Why isn't our need as important as yours?" The film asks many questions, but it also reveals conflict patterns. The Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees are set against the African, in focus and economically. Are the refugees on the African continent being overlooked? Representatives of UNCHR talk about wasting funds.

Catch 22. Millions of people are on the run, but most are stuck in refugee camps. Via a drone camera, Weiwei creates a meditative, dreamlike experience. Patchwork of refugee camps from around the world. White tents in straight lines. Ragged plastic tent in rubbish and mud. Camera flies over camps of various qualities and colors; mud-
drowned camps, sandblasted camps, jungle camps. It spins in my head. The tents do not end.

Weiwei exchanges passports with a young refugee at the Macedonian border in Greece. The refugee offers his tent for sale. Weiwei is switching with its studio in Berlin. The joke is interrupted. The border is permanently closed. 13 refugees are trapped in the makeshift camp. Weiwei admits ambivalence; commitment versus not being able to help the individual.

Weiwei himself spent his childhood in a labor camp in China. His father, a poet, was forced to wash toilets and kept trying to commit suicide. Weiwei is also a poet. And it is the poetry he creates with his exceptional cinematic scenes that touches the most.

In Kenya, yellowed sand and soil blow so hard that people are only glimpsed as we get really close. Weiwei lifts up a sheet with "#I stand with the refugees", but ironically the sheet blows away before he gets filmed. Is that the case with the whole engagement?

Via a drone camera, Weiwei creates a meditative, dreamlike experience. A patchwork of refugee camps from around the world.

Inhuman limbo. Europe agreed in March 2016 that the refugees will be held in Turkey in exchange for substantial financial support and visa-free travel for Turks to Europe. Turkey can send the refugees out at any time – very few people get refugee status in the country. There are no integration programs or opportunities for work or school.

We meet a driver who is digging in the rubbish for leftover food. He finds some bottles of drinking money and some thrown food. At home, one of the children runs manic in a ring. In Gaza, a tiger is running in a circle. The vet is worried. Through intensive work with four different national authorities, they are able to rescue the tiger out of Gaza – an animal deserves better than the living conditions there. At the same time, the film tells the story of generations forced to stay in Gaza. And not just there – the film highlights hundreds of thousands of people around the world who are trapped in a limbo at border crossings and in detention camps.

Weiwei focuses on the dangerous consequences of how the EU constantly buys itself free from the flow of refugees, as in agreements with Libya. After the film, CNN reported on the slave trade as an extreme consequence of the EU-Libya agreement (see http://edition.cnn.com/2017/11/14/africa/libya-migrant-auctions/index.html). Other news reports of a brutal Libyan coast guard provoking drowning death.

Weiwei's question of where it has become of human dignity runs like a common thread through the film's various scenes. In Iraq, oil fields have been set on fire. Black, toxic smoke billows as children play soccer and excavators vainly try to stop the flames. Family life in black-burnt houses. An abducted refugee woman tells of how inhuman it is to drag her son with her for 60 days without finding a place to seek asylum. She throws up and the camera stops. Another refugee mother exclaims: “How can we live a life here? It is so unbearable that we count every moment. "

Christmas tree. Weiwei has created a powerful and powerful post about people being forced from their homes across the globe. The film evokes an imitation in me: a desperate, faceless human waterfall that brutally strikes across Europe's borders. The film conveys a duality – the fear of the large homeless masses on the one hand, and the precarious, fatal life situation of these people on the other.

In the final scene, Weiwei makes another monumental move: From a small stack of abandoned life jackets, the camera pulls up and reveals a huge mountain. Life jackets now cover an opera in New York. Weiwei has placed 300 installations as a provocative commentary on the refugee crisis and the inhumanity he wants for life. The exhibition will run until February 2018.

In New York it is already furore; one of Weiwei's many border installations prevents the traditional Christmas tree lighting.

Ellen Lande
Ellen Lande
Lande is a film writer and director and a regular writer for Ny Tid.

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