With the viral photo of Aylan Kurdi washed ashore in Turkey in September 2015, mass global displacement became a crisis. Given a face, identity and by implication story, the so-called ‘swarm’ of ‘illegals’ across Europe became a flow of refugees and migrants with emotive urgency and agency; a narrative of humanity in crisis.

Two years after the death of Aylan Kurdi, we lack this same narrative. The UN estimates that an unprecedented 65.6 million people are displaced, including 22.5 million refugees of whom over half are under 18. An additional 10 million stateless people, denied a nationality and the rights of citizenship, add to the worst crisis since the tumult of WWII. Every minute, 20 people are forcibly displaced due to conflict or persecution. Such figures are familiar by now, painting the anonymised story of the crisis increasingly now background noise in global politics.

What we do have is the narrative of Brexit, a Trump dystopia and the rallying of far right politics. Playing into the flirtatious hands of xenophobia, faceless numbers, appeals and policy recommendations have largely displaced the narrative of relationality encapsulated so powerfully by Aylan Kurdi. It has become a story of Us and Them. This is not to deny responses of emotion, understanding and humanity; those are very much alive, seen in the countless organisations and volunteers working with refugees, or the protests and marches against xenophobic policies and displays, to name just a few. It is, however, to note the significant draining of urgency on the scale that erupted when Kurdi’s photo was tweeted.

Ai Weiwei’s forthcoming film is an attempt to re-cultivate the narrative of humanity in crisis. The official synopsis for ‘Human Flow’ explains that ‘captured over the course of an eventful year in 23 countries, the film follows a chain of urgent human stories that stretches across the globe in countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, France, Greece, Germany, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Kenya, Mexico and Turkey. ‘Human Flow’ is a witness to its subjects and their desperate search for safety, shelter and justice.’ The recently released trailer shows sprawling scenes interspersed with individual faces, narrated by both humanitarian voices and voices of personal experience. It views as a piece of cinematographic art, to be expected given its director, but with an explicit face and story to tell.

“I’ve been roaming endlessly with my son for 60 days now. Nobody has shown us the way,” one lady says. “Where am I supposed to start my new life?”

What strikes me from the trailer is the identity this film has the potential to grant the refugee crisis. By forcing us to engage with the personal refugee crises, with the faces and stories that constitute the meta-narrative of a global crisis, whilst simultaneously exploring the broader situation(s), ‘Human Flow’ holds the powerful possibility of creating a public space upon which urgency and agency can be sprung.

The idea of film as site (or public space) is espoused and explored by a body of thought in memory studies, primarily concerned with the idea of prosthetic memory. Promoted by academics such as Alison Landsberg and Marianne Hirsch, prosthetic memory as an idea suggests that at an experiential site such as a movie theatre or museum, one can move beyond just apprehending a historical narrative to adopting a more personal, deeply felt memory of the event through which one did not live, which is subsequently able to shape one’s subjectivity and politics. Though particular interest in this field surrounds the limit case of the Holocaust and films such as ‘Shoah’ or ‘Schindler’s List’, its theory may be effectively applied with foresight and temporal contingency that extends beyond an event so far removed from one’s present. In the same way that the identity and personal story of the girl in the red dress holds emotive force over an audience of ‘Schindler’s List’, or following the figure of Stern and his experiences of the Holocaust grants them a form of experiential memory, both significant in keeping memory of the Holocaust alive, so I believe the personal stories of ‘Human Form’ could grant an audience a form of relational, prosthetic experience of the migrant crisis with the power to shape their subjectivity and politics. Ultimately, the film could function as a public space of experiential education and activism and hence, by implication, encourage urgency and action.

Of course, this is all hypothetical. ‘Human Flow’ is scheduled for release in select theatres in October 2017, and it remains to be seen whether the potential espoused in its trailer will indeed materialise.

By Chloe Rixon


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