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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Ai Weiwei's Human Flow and the Global Refugee Crisis

I recently watched Ai Weiwei's Human Flow, about the global refugee crisis.

While the cinematography wasn't bad, it disappointingly (but not surprisingly) failed to take a critical look at the global refugee crisis.

Near the start of the film, it quoted the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention on a refugee being "someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion" (or words to that effect - they edited the quote a little)

However, it then uncritically applied the term (by extension) to many disparate groups, and it seems the film's definition of refugee is any migrant from a third world country who doesn't respect borders; the documentary unironically informs us that every day, more than 3,400 people flee their homes due to poverty, famine and war, not realising how there is little to no overlap with the 1951 Convention. And of course the film was sympathetic to and unquestioning of them (in other words, it more or less calls for open borders - at least for poor people from the Third World).

The film took an expansive look at voluntary human flows across the world; while a lot of time was spent on the European migrant crisis (largely in the form of Syrians, Africans and unknown others in Greece trying to make their way to richer Western European countries), we were also taken to Rohingya camps, Palestinians in Jordanian camps, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, the US-Mexico border [presumably crime is a valid reason to seek asylum] and more, without asking what the commonalities and differences among these groups were - indeed, whether all of them were really refugees. Unfortunately the film also jumped around, returning to some locations more than once - all without the context of a strong narrative (there was no narrator and while there was some text onscreen from time to time, it was used to add additional information rather than disciplining the film's flow).

Most notably, so-called "climate change refugees" were mentioned, but the irony of their reason for leaving their countries being clearly spelt out and contradicting the UN Refugee Convention was not even hinted at.

Another notable example was Palestinians in the Gaza and the West Bank: considering that these two territories are part of the de jure state of Palestine, the only refugee angle I can think of is that Ai is suggesting that they are refugees from land that is now part of Israel (and given that 21% of the Israel population is Israeli Arab, that suggests that the fear of being persecuted wasn't well-founded). And as far as I could tell, all of the Palestine scenes were set in Gaza, giving the misleading impression that those in the West Bank have an equally hard time (though, to Ai's credit, the movie did mention that both Egypt and Israel were blockading the Gaza Strip).

More broadly, none of the interviewees mentioned any downsides of mass migrant/refugee flows, much less was critical of them. The whitewashing was especially remarkable, given that some part of the film was set in Calais and migrant crime in Calais is very well-reported.

Naturally, there was no mention of well-founded principles of international law in the forms of the "safe third country" and "country of first asylum" principles; while documentaries on the big/small screen inevitably take a more visual approach to presenting their subject material, one would imagine that at least some critical engagement should be made with the subject matter - otherwise the documentary becomes either poverty/suffering porn, a propaganda piece or both. This was especially puzzling given at least one excellent opportunity to ask these questions: they interviewed a black guy in Paris in a makeshift migrant camp under a bridge who said it was very hard crossing 3 or more countries, and one could die. He also said that he thought that Europe was the land of freedom, democracy, respect and human rights (it was unclear if he was complaining about not getting enough/any benefits since he didn't complain that he was going to be deported); given that France presumably wasn't the first European country he was in, it is strange why he wasn't asked why he didn't claim asylum in the first one rather than shopping around.

One interviewee remarked that the Post-World War II system of dealing with refugees was not suited to today's situation, but he didn't say what should be done about it - possibly his solution is that we need open borders, and that the quoted number of more than 5,000 drowning in the Mediterranean in 2016 will not increase if you welcome even more people.

The vaguest of hints that free migration might not be all good was a Syrian astronaut Muhammed Faris saying he dreamed of people living in peace and harmony. He did acknowledge that there were evil people around, but his solution was to send them into space. Then again, maybe the evil people he had in mind were Border Control officials like ICE, which liberals want to abolish.

Although there wasn't a strong narrative, it was obvious from the uncritical view the film had of alleged refugees that it was for open borders. We were told that when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 there were 11 border walls, but there're 70 today (while the reasons one might want to put them up were left unexplained - presumably it is obvious that border walls are prima facie a bad thing). Towards the end, it interviewed a Mexican activist who said immigration was a human right, and improving your lives and those of your children were also human rights. Tellingly, she didn't make any reference to refugees. Hopefully the bait and switch did not go unnoticed by all who watched the film.


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