At one point during the documentary Human Flow, artist, political activist and director Ai Weiwei interviews a young mother. The mother has her child on her lap, and the child is playing with a balloon animal. At one point, the child pokes her mother’s forehead with the balloon, and the mother tells the child not to do that. Giggling, the child does it again, and the mother repeats herself, visibly more annoyed at the second interruption. It is a recognizably human moment.

Human Flow puts a human face on a subject that otherwise would be unfathomable in its scope. According to the UN High Commissioner For Refugees, in 2017 there have been over 65 million people forced from their homes due to war, famine, or human rights abuses. And the pace of human migration is accelerating.

Shot over the course of a year, Human Flow takes us to 23 different countries to examine the greatest migration of human beings since the end of World War II.  From makeshift tent cities along the Greece-Macedonia border, to Bangladesh,  to the clean confines of German refugee camps, and even to the US-Mexican border, Human Flow turns the abstraction of statistics into personal stories of humans struggling to find a better life fleeing from war and catastrophe. It is a beautifully shot, thoughtful and captivating film. 

Syrians escaping the war in their homeland cross the Mediterranean in crowded rafts- many drown when the seas suddenly turn rough. They hope to have a new life in Europe, but many European countries have closed their borders to them. 70 countries in Europe have built border walls and fences, up from just 11 during the last days of the cold war in 1989. The refugees pile up along these fences, hoping that one day they may be allowed to travel on and become settled in a new home somewhere.

Although many hope they may one day be able to return to their homeland, the average length of time a refugee is apart from their native country is twenty-five years. That’s a generation growing up and coming of age in a refugee camp which is the only home they have ever known.

Conditions in these camps can be terrible. In the makeshift camps like those in Greece or in Calais, there is often no access to food or running water. People must hike for an hour each way to bring back a bucket full of water. In one shot, someone carries a head of lettuce through a camp, and people call out wondering where they could have gotten such a treasure.

The camp in Germany, by comparison, is almost a paradise. Built inside an airplane hanger, the camp is clean, well-run. People have access to basic human needs such as food, water, sanitation and some semblance of privacy. And yet even here, the confines of this camp can be stifling. One girl is interviewed who says that she and everyone she knows is bored. A gilded cage is still just a cage.

The dispiriting and dehumanizing conditions found in these camps leave the young people growing up in them ripe for radicalization. Terrorists are not born, they are made. They come from a place of anger, frustration and a feeling of powerlessness, feelings which are intensified by being stuck in one of these refugee camps, neither allowed to move forward, or return to the past they knew.

Human Flow is a work epic in scope. It would have to be to tackle the enormity of the issue it examines. Director Ai and his international team of cinematographers show sweeping vistas of desert camps stretching to the horizon. One shot has people moving about like ghostly shapes through a sandstorm in Africa. When photographing the arid and lifeless red soil, Ai might have well been on Mars.

Human Flow is a work epic in scope. It would have to be to tackle the enormity of the issue it examines.

But the movie never lets you forgot the human side of the crises. One aerial drone shot presents a camp from high above, like an abstract pattern, but the drone descends and soon we see people scurrying below, like ants on a kitchen counter. The drone drops even lower, and those ants resolve into a group of children, fascinated by the technological marvel taking pictures of them and telling their story.

Ai himself moves throughout the film like a phantom. Occasionally he involves himself. He comforts a woman who weeps about her predicament, and offers to trade his Chinese passport to a refugee for that man’s passport. He and his crew are kicked off of US soil when they stray over the line while filming in Mexico. He is a quiet, but sympathetic observer. He doesn’t have to say a word to let you know how deeply he feels.

If the film has any one flaw, it’s that it tries to cover too much. As a result, segments such as the one involving the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group who are fleeing human rights abuses in Myanmar, feel undercooked. The worldwide scope of the current migration crises is too big for any one film.

When refugees from Northern Africa, fleeing famine and drought, arrive in Italy, they are pulled from the boats and give mylar foil blankets to keep them warm. Clad in their silver and gold foil, the refugees resemble a lunar lander. Like the landers, they have crossed an immeasurable gulf and have found purchase on alien soil. Let us hope that we as a species can find the strength and will to offer welcome and support to those who have to make that journey.