Recap: ‘Human Flow’ captures the global refugee crisis

by Elizabeth Garrison | 1/23/18 12:55am

A single boat bobs on the Mediterranean Sea. The malnourished and dehydrated men, women and children onboard, suffering from infectious diseases and scurvy, huddle together. Their bright orange ponchos pop out against the dark water. A couple of the women are heavily pregnant, and one of them has to be rushed to a hospital for an emergency delivery.

This is just one snapshot into the difficult lives of refugees. Those on the boat were just 720 of the approximately 18 million refugees fleeing from sub-Saharan Africa in search of a better life. “Human Flow,” a documentary on the global refugee crisis by Chinese artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei, played Saturday night at Spaulding Auditorium in the Hopkins Center for the Arts. Filmed in 23 different countries, “Human Flow” captured a powerful visual image of the crisis that currently plagues over 65 million people.

Johanna Evans, acting film manager at the Hop, said she first heard about “Human Flow,” which debuted on Oct. 20, 2017, when working at the Telluride Film Festival in September 2017. In the past, the Hop had programmed other films about Weiwei such as “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.”

“We have one particular view of how the global migration issue is going to affect us,” Evans said. “But, what I think is great about Weiwei’s film is that he’s trying to look at the entire world and portray this as a global issue that affects all of us.”

Evans noted the mix of media included in the film as part of the attraction of the film from an artistic standpoint.

“[‘Human Flow’] combines footage of people shooting their own experience on an iPhone with large scale drone footage of how huge the migration is in some instance,” Evans said. “It shows both the intimate parts of this experience and the massive global scale of what this issue is.”

When Dennis Wegner, advisor for the Max Kade Living Learning Community, located in the Max Kade German Center, heard that “Human Flow” was coming to the Hop, he knew that residents would be interested in the film because the migrant issue is such a hot topic in Germany. Indeed, Germany is one of the countries highlighted in Weiwei’s film; Weiwei captures crowds of migrants attempting to cross into Hungary to reach Germany.

Wegner said that he invited the other Living Learning Communities to participate due to the global pattern of migration.

Wegner held a discussion on the refugee crisis to provide interested students with deeper context prior to the film screening. He invited Haley Johnston, a graduate student in the Master of Liberal Arts program in the globalization studies track, to be the guest speaker. Johnston wrote her undergraduate thesis on the migrant crisis in Europe and worked at a refugee center in Canada for two summers, during which she met refugees from over 30 different countries.

In her talk, Johnston dispelled common misconceptions about refugees, stating that while people often assume that all refugees are poor and uneducated, in reality, they come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. Johnston said that refugees may have been well-off in their home countries but were forced to leave out of fear for their lives, pointing to the fact that they were able to get out of their home country as an indicator of relative resources.

Jenna Thompson ’20, a member of the German LLC and a film and media studies and psychology double major, said she was interested in attending the discussion and viewing “Human Flow” because she wanted to learn more about the refugee crisis.

“When [Johnston] asked us to picture what a refugee looks like, admittedly I imagined a Syrian mother with a small child, because that’s what I’ve been fed through the news,” Thompson said. “I thought her way of going through the misconceptions and knocking them down was a very impactful way to portray this crisis.”

Thompson added that the medium of film felt like an appropriate mechanism to learn more about this kind of topical, complex issue.

“I love film, and I especially love film when I think it can make a difference,” Thompson said. “It can educate people about things that are outside of their personal bubble. Fortunately, this is one thing I haven’t had to deal with, but I know affects millions of people. So, I thought this was something I should learn about.”