'Human Flow': Ai Weiwei's Documentary Film Records the Refugee Crisis

Ai Weiwei approached shooting 'Human Flow' with the idea that he would take advantage of modern filmmaking tools such as camera phones and drones to show new perspectives.
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Internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei's epic documentary Human Flow (@HumanFlowMovie) explores the world's refugee crisis through a series of episodes about displaced people in hot spots throughout the world. The narrative—shaped by moments from interviews, meditative imagery, powerful drone shots and the artist's own cell phone footage of his worldwide trek—brings the viewer into this international crisis from both a global and a local perspective.

Ai (@aiww), who shares producing credit with Chin-Chin Yap (also the film's writer) and documentary veteran Heino Deckert, approached shooting Human Flow with the idea that he and the production teams would take advantage of modern filmmaking tools such as camera phones and drones, along with more traditional camera gear, to show audiences imagery and physical perspectives that would previously have been impossible. "I think certainly the use of iPhones and very small cameras in these kinds of conditions, where you could never set up larger equipment, gives the film a quality it normally wouldn't have," he offers.

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Refugees walking near Idomeni Camp, Greece
Photos courtesy of Amazon Studios

As for the many drone shots, he adds, "When you're dealing with a massive scale, drones have a superior ability to capture scale in a very short time. We all know how [documentarians] generally approach filming in poorly structured camps. It's nothing new. You've seen one, you've seen them all. Drones change the point of view, show the camp in relation to the landscape. [We can] show life vests, then people on a boat and then pull back more to reveal the relation to the land and the ocean. It can be very powerful."

Danish editor Niels Pagh Andersen, known for his work on the Academy Award-nominated films The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, oversaw a team of editors. They built the cut step by step, starting when the production had amassed roughly 150 hours of material and working as more footage came in, to the point where they had roughly 1,000 hours of material.

"We liked each other," Andersen recalls of his earliest meeting with the artist. "We share the same sense of humor. And that is very important when you go on such a big journey with someone."

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Two women in Mosul, Iraq

Andersen recalls the effect Ai had on him both in their face-to-face meetings and in the interviews. "It is very much 'I am a human being and you are a human being,'" Anderson affirms. "And it is the same whether he's speaking to the Princess of Jordan or to a young child in a refugee camp."

Ai and the team of more than 200 production crew, drone operators, assistants, local fixers and others continued sending footage throughout nearly the entirety of the short cutting period. The production set up an editing space five minutes from Ai's studio in Berlin, where he's been based since his exile from his homeland of China. There, the teams of editors could collaborate on Avid workstations, which shared a server.

First, Andersen recounts, four junior editors cut together what he calls the "flow material," which is mainly master shots of people moving, walking, waiting and so on. The junior editors didn't work on the interviews or the material Ai shot on his phone.

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"We were also developing a language for the film," he elaborates. "There were so many DOPs and styles and it was important to see how it worked together. I gave orders: 'If you see an image that could be in a normal television program, don't use it. Or if it's so powerful you think you must use it, give it double the length you normally would.' We read an image on the surface in two to five seconds, but if it's a very strong image, then there are layers in it that encourage a new interpretation when it remains on the screen longer than we expect."

He instructed editors to think beyond the most basic story elements that would be presented in a traditional documentary or news report. "In a dramaturgical sense, you could show a few images—bombs falling, people moving from one place to another, they are denied access at a border, they gather in a refugee camp—and that's it," the editor explains. "To go further and to sustain the power of the narrative, you have to look deeper. So when the refugees arrive in Lesbos, for example, it's about 'We survived!' There's hope. They start their march to the Macedonian border. It's closed. The hope is stopped."

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Refugees at the Jordanian Syrian border

When his editorial team presented Anderson and Ai a first cut of the "flow material," it took the project closer to its ultimate form and tone, but it also presented some examples of how Andersen did not want the film to unfold. "We learned from some of the mistakes," he recalls. "There was a lot of sentimentality in the first cut. A lot of crying children. I said, 'Come on, these people are heroes! When they arrived at Lesbos, that was a victory. They escaped the war. They survived the sea. We don't want to look at them with pity.' Pity is not an equal relationship. Pity is us saying, 'Poor you.' The power of filmmaking is identification and we don't identify with losers. We pity losers. We identify with heroes, with people who overcome difficulties."

Other portions from that cut may not have gone into sentimental territory but failed to land emotionally for other reasons. Anderson says, "There was scene from the Thailand portion of an airplane hangar full of people. It was very much something you'd see in any normal documentary." Clicking off the bullet points, he says, "What is the situation? Here is the camp. Here are some people. It was boring to me. But there was one image of an old lady who is just sitting and staring. That caught my attention. I said, 'That is the jewel of the scene! Try to build the whole thing where she is somehow at the center.'"

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Ai Weiwei speaks with a displaced person.

As these portions took form, and as Ai and shooting teams sent back footage from one location after another, two senior editors started work on the interview material and the shots from Ai's iPhone. They whittled everything down to a cut that spent roughly one hour per country. Anderson took that version and cut further to build the final structure. "I was the captain," he says of the process, "but I couldn't have done it without the other editors."

The film proceeds in ways that are not the norm for documentaries, but Anderson explains that Ai avoided abstracting or complicating the essential story of the refugees at the heart of Human Flow. "It wasn't 'He is a big artist and we should make art.' He was always very focused on the questions 'What is the concept?' and 'What do you want to tell the audience?'

"He had never been to a Dolby Atmos mix in his life," Andersen recalls, "but when he found out what you can do, he was very quick to understand the core principles. It can be very seductive hearing all you can do with subwoofers and surround sound, but he was very much about simplifying things, not complicating."

Human Flow opened in wide release on Oct. 13.  

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