Nowhere to Go: Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow

Two women pictured in Mosul, Iraq. (photos courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Climate-change deniers are right about one thing, though they seemingly haven’t thought through its significance or its causes: Earth’s dominant weather patterns have indeed changed multiple times over the millennia (though previously, not as a result of human activity). One of the ways scientists know this is through the evidence of massive population movements, which can be tracked well before recorded history by studying changes in language as groups of people fleeing glaciers, extended drought, plagues or whatever came into contact for the first time with other groups, absorbing some of their words in the process. Historical linguists have developed many clever etymological tricks for interpreting Homo sapiens’ migratory DNA, and deserve to be bought a beer next time you run into one.

So the contemporary world’s alarming displacement of huge numbers of people is not unprecedented, but we don’t have natural disasters or geological processes primarily to blame this time. A staggering 65 million residents of our home planet can now be classified as refugees, mostly due to human-generated war, violence and privation. That number can only grow tragically larger as climate change raises sea levels and makes previously fertile lands incapable of food production. On a micro level, sheltered Americans encounter a tiny piece of this global disaster in the form of acrimonious public debate whenever a refugee family moves into the neighborhood. Some of us wish that we could do more to help the desperate displaced. But most of us aren’t seeing the big picture.


Fortunately for us, Ai Weiwei does. The “Andy Warhol of China,” internationally notorious for turning political and cultural dissidence into an artform, works in many media, among them documentary film. Fortuitously timed to coincide with the unveiling in New York City last month of his series of immigration-themed sculptures collectively titled Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, Ai’s latest movie, Human Flow, is now beginning to appear in local cinemas. It made its debut at the Moviehouse in Millerton, and it will be screened at the Rosendale Theatre twice in the coming week: at 2 p.m. on Sunday, November 19 and at 7:15 p.m. on Tuesday, November 21.

Ai spent the better part of a year collecting footage of refugees in 23 countries, sometimes getting into the middle of the muddle personally, sometimes using aerial drones to capture the terrible scale of the problem. It’s not his style to offer up sentimental “through-the-eyes-of” portraits of individuals; he does one short interview and then moves onto the next, letting the camera speak its witness. It’s in the relentless impressionistic accretion of bits of many people’s stories that the impact of this film is built. Imagine Koyaanisqatsi without the visual lyricism and the Philip Glass music, and expect to be a bit overwhelmed.

This is a film that needs to be widely seen, if we want to be ready as a society to act responsibly and humanely in the face of a planetwide disaster that is already upon us. Tickets cost $12 general admission, $10 for Rosendale Theatre Collective members. The Theatre is located at 408 Main Street (Route 213) in Rosendale. For more info, call (845) 658-8989 or visit To view a trailer for Human Flow, visit

Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia, Bangladesh.

A group of children run through Ain al-Hilweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon.

Refugees walking near Idomeni Camp, Greece.