I want the right of life,
of the leopard at the spring, of the seed splitting open-
I want the right of the first man.
— Excerpt from the Poem ‘Hymn to Life’ by Tibetan Poet Nazim Hikmet Ran (1937)
This quote opened the journey of Ai Weiwei’s Documentary Human Flow, as a drone camera rolled on a distant birds-eye view of an inflatable raft chocked full of refugees pursuing the ocean waters to Greece’s shore. Admittedly, I was having a particularly openhearted day prior to taking my seat in the intimate theater at Quad Cinema. And the surprise introduction to the film by Meryl Streep, which was no doubt moving, had me releasing a few untamed howls before the film started to roll. But the poignancy of the opening scene had this driving force to the heart that got my tears flowing.
Ai Weiwei’s father Ai Qjing, one of China’s most renowned poets, was exiled to northeast China and Xinjiang in 1957/58 and not allowed return to Beijing until 1976. So when Ai Weiwei was asked during the Q&A what drew his artistic focus to refugees his answer was simply “I was born into it.”
Ai Weiwei’s choice to gracefully insert several quotes from poets throughout the film digs even deeper knowing his father’s story.
You killed me… and I forgot, like you, to die.
—Excerpt from “In Jerusalem” from the Butterfly’s Burden by Mahmoud Darwish (2008)
With Human Flow, Ai Weiwei gifts viewers with an incredibly intimate perspective on the inhumane reality and personal degradation of life as a refugee. The average refugee spends 25 years in displacement. After traveling the globe and over nine hundred hours of shot footage, Ai Weiwei’s dedication distinguishes this film from any other on this laden topic.
The most fitting way I can think of to honor this film, and Ai Weiwei’s arduous labor of love, in words on the screen is to simply to ask that you find your way to see Human Flow.