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Everybody's a refugee

by Erin Blackwell

Watching a movie in order to review it is a curious occupation. Half the brain watches, and the other half monitors the brain's response to what it sees. As in wine-tasting, the mental palate tastes and simultaneously categorizes the flavors encountered as they arise. A series of sensations leaves its traces to be noted and communicated while they're still fresh. Subjective sensory experience is measured against objective categories, enabling a reviewer to judge a film in good faith, allowing for irrational storms of emotion and petulance. My usual apparatus was stymied by "Human Flow," opening Friday at San Francisco's Clay and Berkeley's Shattuck.

Sitting in a venerable old screening-room downtown, a soundproof haven where reality cannot impinge on the perfect conditions for the careful tasting of yet another exercise in cinematic opium, I was annoyed to find myself confronted with 145 minutes of raw footage of the refugee experience. Of course it's not raw-raw, having been whittled down from 60,000 minutes by editors under the direction of Ai Weiwei, China's best-known artistic son, currently based in Berlin. His chosen home has meaning, Europe being the Promised Land for refugees from USA's catastrophic incursions in the Middle East.

As a rule, I don't leave a screening, or arrest a DVD or streaming video midstream, when I'm reviewing. It's my job to see it through, in the off-chance things might improve, or I might be seduced to a filmmaker's point of view, or visually bludgeoned into submission. Yet sometimes I do fast-forward because whatever it is they think I need to watch is to my mind redundant, snail-paced, or annoying. I did close my eyes from time to time during "Human Flow," to spare them the unwieldy long takes, the unsteady-cam jostle, and the leading-nowhere tricks.

When I'd open my eyes again, I'd see I'd missed a bit of verbiage: a quote, a statistic, a headline. I took my failure to read 100% of these bits philosophically, since the ones I did read appeared in white against a pale background and were thus illegible, or added little to my understanding of the "flow." Words, for an artist like Ai Weiwei, are merely found objects, one as good as another. His moviemaking could use precision and concision.

Subjected to 145 minutes of Ai's randomness, I felt bad about wanting it to be over, since the poor people being recorded by his cameras were enduring more than 145 minutes of homeless, stateless, often pointless migration. Their situation is extreme, the risks dire, and they're real people. Was it obscene to parade them for my consumption, or was my irritation at his constantly inserting himself into the frame like Hitchcock beside the point?

Maybe Ai Weiwei is the problem, his failure to be didactic, his preferring to pose with the refugees as if he were one of them in a selfie that blurs specificity of history, culture, and place, merging the identities of individuals into a vast soup slopping across borders or failing to slop. Maybe analyzing and teaching would be a better use of 23 countries, 200 crewmembers, and endless supplies of refugees, but maybe Amazon wouldn't fund a filmmaker of conscience able to sublimate the self and articulate a demand to stem this flood.

Maybe Ai Weiwei's international cachet will benefit his subjects. "You tell these people that you're the same as them," he told The Guardian. "But you are lying because you are not the same. Your situation is different; you must leave them. And that's going to haunt me for the rest of my life."

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