“Human Flow”: Ai Weiwei’s panorama of the worldwide refugee crisis

Ai Weiwei is known for his work for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and then for his subsequent troubles with Chinese authorities over dissent (the subject of more than one film).

His “Human Flow” is a monumental and lengthy (140 min) collage of refugee experiences all over the world.  The film starts with a shot over water reminding one of a similar shot in “The Master” (2012), leading to presentation of refugees on flotillas across the Mediterranean.

The film soon shows us long shots of refugee camps in Iraq, Jordan, Thailand, Bangladesh  Turkey, Kenya, Greece, and even farther north in Calais (which gets dismantled).

There’s a scene in Turkey where the people first look like ants from above until the drone camera gets closer.  There’s a scene inside a hangar in Germany where families like in cubicles.

Some of the most stunning footage occurs around Mosul, with the oil fires deliberately set (like the 1992 “The Fires of Kuwait”).

Near the end of the film the expected scenes along the US Mexico border appear.

Ai Weiwei often appears in many scenes, assisting individuals personally.

The film does not go into detail into the programs that countries have to house refugees in regular apartments and have sponsorship with regular families (as in Canada), and it doesn’t get into the difference between asylum seekers and refugees.

The film, at the end, does comment on global wealth inequality, climate change, and that people with different personal and communal cultures will have to learn to live together on one climate.

US-Mexico border Wiki picture.

Weiwei biographical history.

Review of “Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case” (2014).

Review of “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” (2012)

Name: Human Flow
Director, writer:  Ai Weiwei
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Landmark E-Street, 2017/10/14, near sellout
Length:  140
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Amazon Studios original film, Participant Media, AC Films
Link: Hollywood Reporter director QA 

(Posted: Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017 at 10 AM EDT)

“The War Show”: from Arab spring to absolute carnage in Syria, through the eyes of a DJ

Radio talk show host and DJ Obaidah Zytoon captures the spirit of the Arab Spring in Syria in the new documentary “The War Show” by Danish director Andreas Dalsgaard (with Oqba Bouzian).  The positive beginning of the revolution is credited to social media, especially Facebook, but soon the unintended backlash (or “Blowback” (2000)) would happen.

The early part of the film is shot in super-16 (so it looks) with smaller 4:3 aspect ratio, as somewhat secular resistance against Assad springs up in cities like Homs. Assad often takes personal retribution against opponents with torture and kidnappings. In one case, a resistance fighter is denied the honor of a funeral.

As time passes, the war becomes a 3-way fight, as radical Islam enters the fight, with the gradual evolution of ISIS, setting up a capital in Raqqa. Russia enters, more or less on the side of Assad fighting “terrorists”, complicating the picture further. The film expands to the usual wide screen showing the more recent devastation as Obaidah somehow gets around to film it, despite threats to filmmakers and journalists that no one record what is happening. The life stories of a few of the more secular resistance fighters emerges, all ending in tragedy and retrospect.  There are some scenes of the venting of radical Islamist ideology when applied to civilians (especially women) on conquered territory.  There are brief scenes of boatlift escapes toward Greece.

The film was aired on PBS POV on July 3, followed by a brief QA by one of the co-producers, who emphasized that Americans do have a moral obligation to help Syrian refugees, Trump’s nationalism and isolationism notwithstanding.

Homs pictures on Wikipedia, 2011, and after civil war.

I am remined of the 1965 long short “The War Game” by Peter Watkins, of how a nuclear WWIII erupts from a sudden escalation over Vietnam. I saw it while in graduate school in 1967 at KU (before my own military service). I remember the line “I don’t want to do anything” in the devastation. Yet, as the films from Syria show, civilians are capable of a lot of resilience.  The classic BW film (belonging to Universal now) seems especially relevant given North Korea’s recent belligerent behavior, including the claim of a launch of an ICBM.

And don’t forget John Badham’s “War Games” (1983) where a kid video game fanatic almost starts WWIII, in a pre-Internet world.

Name: “The War Show”
Director, writer:  Andreas Dalsgaard
Released:  2016
Format:  1.37:1, 1.85:1
When and how viewed: PBS POV 2017/7/3
Length:  88 + QA
Rating:  NA  (R for war violence)
Companies:  October Films, PBS POV
Link:  official

(Posted: Tuesday, July 4, 2017 at 12:30 PM EDT)

“Dalya’s Other Country”: a Syrian refugee family assimilates well in Los Angeles

On Monday, June 26, 2017, PBS POV aired the documentary “Dalya’s Other Country” (74 min), directed by Julia Meltzer (Journeyman Pictures).

In 2012, Dalya, as a teenage girl, came to Los Angeles from Aleppo with an older brother and mother Rudayna.

The family assimilates rather well, and the director afterward says that is one of the main points of the film, to show a family that makes it.

Dalya struggles to get into college.  Her older brother adapts as a technology person, speaking perfect English and assimilating as a westernized young man while practicing prayers and diet a home. Rydayna resents her husband’s polygamy.  Her husband comes to visit and live in LA for a while, before going back to Turkey.  At one point, the husband gives an interesting account of the Muslim account of the afterlife (which happens at the end of time).

There is discussion of the wearing of the hijab, and the increasing hostility being stirred up by Donald Trump’s populist campaign.  Dayla turns 18 on Nov. 7, 2017 and votes on Nov. 8 (I guess having become a citizen).

The feature was followed by the short film “From Damascus to Chicago” (12 min), by Colleen Cassingham and Alex Lederman.   A Syrian refugee family, with DHS supervision and a faith-based group assisting, accommodates to life in Chicago.  The daughters learn ballet.  But the father develops a lymphoma and has total-body radiation but goes into remission and seems to be doing well at the end.

Name:  “Dayla’s Other Country
Director, writer:  Julia Meltzer
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  PBS POV 2017/6/26
Length:  74
Rating:  NA
Companies:  PBS POV, Journeyman Pictures
Link:  PBS


(Posted: Monday, June 26, 2017 at 11:15 PM EDT)

“The Trump Survival Guide” by Gene Stone; what can “you do”? Join movements? Volunteer? Become an activist?

I read about this little handbook in the Washington Blade print edition at dinner last weekend.  It’s a new Bantamweight book “The Trump Survival Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Living Through what You Hoped Would Never Happen”, by Gene Stone, a little paperback and Kindle how is prolific with advice guides.  (Should read, “what you had hoped…”.)

The back cover says “Don’t Despair, Don’t Retreat, Fight Back”.

The book  is set up in fourteen short chapters about various issues.  Each chapter introduces the history of the issue, says what Barack Obama did about it, then speculates what Donald Trump might do, and then what to do about it personally.

The historical narratives assume a reader who knows very little history.  So this book, in a sense, is “for people”;  it’s not an argument about what policy should be (although it generally is “liberal” to moderate in tone).  I don’t write these sorts of articles or books myself, and I’ve sometimes been quizzed as to “why not”.   It may sell very well for a while.

The advice, “What you can do” is rather challenging.  It says, join organizations (or maybe movements?) Volunteer.  Become a teacher.  Become a mentor.  Volunteer in a soup kitchen.  Knock on doors and raise money.

I don’t knock on doors and ask for money because I view myself as a “journalist” and “above that”.  That makes me a spectator and critic, I guess.

On the volunteering, I find my own activity has to be very carefully thought through and matched to my background.  Many volunteer organizations are not very transparent and too bureaucratic and authoritarian in their own way.  I could imagine, for example, directing chess tournaments in underprivileged areas.  But I would like to get my own playing skill back up first (to something like USCF 2000).

All that said, there are some interesting points.

One is that Nixon conspired to get black people convicted of drug offenses so they couldn’t vote later.   I’ve heard that before, but it’s good to be reminded.

Another is the whole history of political parties, that at one time we had a “Know Nothing” party that predicts modern anti-intellectualism, and that the US has often had very discriminatory immigration policies in the past.

Still another is the attitude toward women’s work – that women were needed in the workforce during World War II, rather suddenly, so that the men could fight.  There is coverage of Trump’s inconsistency with regard to women (and his vulgar comments), and a hint that many men, ironically, see women’s work as a sign of their relative impotence, a profound cultural issue (which stands opposite to how male homosexuality often works).

He gives a good history of LGBTQ rights, especially pre-Stonewall, when society was deliberately intrusive into the private lives of gay people.  He covers the history of sodomy laws briefly, as well as DADT. He notes that Trump personally has claimed to support gay rights, but seems to be appointing anti-gay people to his Cabinet (Mattis seems OK on the DADT repeal as of this writing).  Trump seemed to treat gay contestants fairly on his own “Apprentice” show.

On immigration, he notes that Obama set up DACA but was pretty aggressive with deportations.  He notes that Mike Pence had once said he wanted to deport even the settled Syrian refugees.

On national security, he notes Trump’s own waffling on Iraq, but he doesn’t pay enough heed to the fact that Obama’s withdrawals may have helped allow the civil war in Syria to aid the spread of ISIS into Iraq and create random lone wolf threats to American civilians at home. I think the targeting of civilians, a kind of enemy conscription, is a bigger legal threat to other areas (like free speech online, with the terror recruiting problem) than most commentators realize. He does talk about the NSA and the torture issues.

On health care, he does explain that premiums for some people in the individual market, under the individual mandate, went up under Obamacare to help cover other people with pre-existing conditions.  People with too much income were not assisted with subsidies, so that is why many voters (who became Trump supporters) became incensed.  I like the idea of covering pre-existing conditions separately with a reinsurance vehicle. But you would have to debate, state by state, what gets covered this way.

He doesn’t cover the free press and free speech issues, or network neutrality, in much detail, but his brief statement on net neutrality sounds grim, like it could lead to censorship by telecom companies.

Author: Gene Stone
Title, Subtitle: The Trump Survival Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Living Trhough what You Hoped Would Never Happen
publication date 2017
ISBN 978-0-06-268648-0
Publication: Dey St/William Morrow, 191 pages, paper, 14 chapters, endnotes
Link: author

(Posted: January 26, 2017 at 1 PM EST)

“The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble” gives a tour of troubled parts of the world, with their music


Name: The Music of Strangers
Director, writer:  Morgan Neville
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Cinema Arts, Fairfax VA, 2016/7/2, late, fair audience
Length 96
Rating PG-13
Companies: The Orchard, HBO Documentary
Link: official site

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble”, directed by Morgan Neville, does take us around the world, to some troubled places, corresponding to the homelands of the musicians whom cellist Yo-Yo Ma assembled as “Silkroad” in 1998, starting out in Tanglewood.


We see some of China, both villages and high-rises under construction; we see the shrines in Tehran, a lot of Istanbul, and most of all, two Syrian refugee camps, one in Jordan (a massive tent city in the desert from the air) and in Lebanon (a shack city covered in snow in northern mountains).  We see plenty of Galicia, in northern Spain, not too far from the Basque country (which is the subject of a current Smithsonian exhibit, my post here http://billsmediareviews.com/?p=1885 ). The scenes in Galicia would be near the Camino de Santiago , subject of the pilgrimage film “The Way” (Emilio Estevez, 2010), which a Presbyterian minister I know (from Arlington VA) walked with her pastor husband in 2015.

The documentary focuses particularly on just a few musicians, such as Cristina Pato from Spain, and Kayhan Kalhor, who has to leave Iran permanently, and Kinan Azmeh, from Syria.  The narrative is punctuated my major world political events, especially 9/11, and later the collapse of Syria under Assad.  There are some epigrams in the script, like it is hard to grow up and remain a musician.  But the world will remember the culture and art from an area forever, but not the antagonistic politicians and religious revolutionaries.

Most of the music is rather folkish, although Yo Yo-Ma sometimes plays some Bach and Saint-Saens.  Yo Yo’s son often appears.


Wikipedia attribution link for Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, public domain

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Iron houses in Galicia, CCSA 2.0  by Carlos de Paz.

(Published on Sunday, July 3, 2016 at 3:30 PM EDT)