Human Flow (4 stars)

Human Flow

Ai Weiwei's hugely ambitious take on the refugee crisis carries us on a heartbreaking journey

The famed Chinese artist and political agitator Ai Weiwei is no stranger to the documentary, either as a medium for his own work or, in the case of Alison Klayman's 2012 portrait Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a showcase for his art and activism. But his latest project Human Flow is his first feature-length doc, a hugely ambitious (sometimes overly so) piece about the global refugee crisis.

The sheer logistics of this year-long project – aiming to focus in on some of the world's 65 million displaced souls – are mind-boggling, with 25 crews criss-crossing the globe, from Europe to Afghanistan and Iran to the US-Mexico border. Using more than a dozen cinematographers, including Wong Kar-wai's esteemed collaborator Christopher Doyle, Ai covers almost as much terrain, hopping between the 23 countries where he can.

If this sounds like tourism, the artist parachuting into the migrant crisis, nothing could be further from the truth. Ai's great empathy seeps through the film, whether he pops up cooking kebabs on an open fire at a camp, or humorously exchanging passports with one refugee (although the subsequent chat that maybe they should swap the man's tent for the artist's studio shows the great disparity at work here).

Poetic images resonate throughout, notably the final shot of abandoned life-jackets on the shoreline of Greek island Lesbos, a testament to the enormity of the human suffering. Facts and figures, too, cross the screen, and there are more traditional talking heads interviews – though these slightly jar with the on-the-ground footage, which feels far more immediate.

Some of it is truly heartbreaking, like the sequence trailing a posse of sodden refugees as they trudge to the Macedonian border only to be repelled by police. Admittedly, despite deft editing, the film does feel unwieldy at times; but there's no denying that the tapestry it creates is one of profound sorrow.

Screening at selected cinemas with a live director Q&A on Mon 4 Dec. Selected wider release from Fri 8 Dec.

Human Flow

Over 65 million people around the world have been forced from their homes to escape famine, climate change and war in the greatest human displacement since World War II. Human Flow, an epic film journey led by the internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei, gives a powerful visual expression to this massive human…