Since last year's demolition of the so-called Calais "jungle", the camp that housed more than 7,000 refugees and migrants, the refugee crisis has somewhat fallen off the news agenda in the UK. What with Trump, Brexit, various national elections and sexual harassment allegations consuming journalists' attention, it's no stretch to say refugees haven't been at the forefront of many people's minds this year. Which makes it the perfect time for Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei to release his new documentary.
Human Flow, out in UK cinemas today after being shown at various festivals this year, is perhaps the most all-encompassing, sprawling film yet – it covers 20 countries – on the global refugee crisis. If your knowledge of global forced displacement is lacking (which is true for most of us, let's face it), then the film is a two-and-a-half-hour education.
Viewers are escorted from the now-familiar Greek shores, where boats upon boats of Syrian refugees are arriving, to Mosul, eastern Turkey, Calais, Gaza, Berlin, Bangladesh, Jordan, Hungary, the US-Mexico border and elsewhere. The focus isn't solely on the Syrians making their way to Europe because, lest we forget, people are being forcibly displaced the world over because of climate change and economic desperation as well as war, genocide and ethnic cleansing.
Startling facts and numbers flash up on screen throughout – did you know there are more than 65 million displaced people worldwide? – interspersed with talking heads from various NGOs sharing yet more hard-hitting truths on the indifference of the international community. There's also no way of discussing Human Flow without mentioning the way it's shot. The imagery, created by 25 camera crews, is simply stunning. The mix of close-up, ground-level images and sweeping drone shots manages to both highlight the scale of the crisis and unsettle and upset even the hardest of hearts.
Some of the most poignant moments are those that seem the least outwardly remarkable. A family smiling at phone pictures of their cat back in Syria wearing a jumper; a young girl recalling the boredom of being a restless kid confined to Berlin's Tempelhof Airport camp; a young man sobbing onto his brother, the pair debating whether to continue on their journey. Intimate moments like this are often left on the cutting room floor by media organisations covering refugees.
When it comes to tragic global news stories, compassion fatigue is very real – there's just too much sadness and despair for a single human brain to comprehend – and the macrocosmic, dispassionate style of much reporting, obsessed as it is with facts and statistics, can make us feel even more disengaged from the people behind the headlines.
But Human Flow, even just by reminding us that refugees are just as desperate to charge their smartphones as the rest of us, makes migration stories relatable. The film has been described as "the definitive documentary" about the refugee crisis, hailed as a contender for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars, been showered with four- and five-star reviews and has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 94%. There's really no excuse not to see it.
Watch Human Flow in cinemas across the UK and Ireland from 8th December.
Want more like this?