Blog Archive

Blog Archive – October, 2017

In HUMAN FLOW, Ai Weiwei Turns His Activist Art to Global Refugees

October 11, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

When I received the invitation from Magnolia Pictures to preview a forthcoming film by artist Ai Weiwei, recognizing the name of its celebrated Chinese director, I was eager to screen it. I have a scant impression of the visual extravagance of Ai’s art work, but knew nothing of his filmmaking before my research for this review. Now I learn of his copious filming explorations resulting in more than 20 video productions between 2003 and 2013, some rather lengthy, e.g. Chang’an Boulevard (10:13 hrs), or So Sorry, and mostly completed in his homeland.

                Ai Weiwei’s early videos are largely investigative visual documentations of injustices, tragedies, dissident profiles and autobiographical projects. A prolific artist who also identifies himself as an activist and dissident, Ai gained international attention, predictably, when in 2011 he was detained for some 81 days in his city, Beijing.

He works in multimedia, often on a grand scale. This may explain his attraction to the theme of this film, Human Flow @HumanFlowMovie @aiww, due for release October 13th in the USA. More than two hours long, taking us into fourteen refugee camps across more than ten countries from Bangladesh to Kenya to Mexico (notably, this project omits reference to Tibetan or Qinghai refugees from China), employing some 100 staff and 60 translators, Human Flow is of epic scale in more than its title.

                Human Flow is essentially a human rights message—a visual statement of the unfulfilled rights – or dreams, if you will-- of refugees across the globe. His tens of thousands of subjects—representing tens of millions worldwide--are souls in transit: South Americans slipping across the Mexican border into the USA, Palestinians driven from their lands, Africans escaping from various homelands by boat across the Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern families walking into the European mainland. It’s about fences and guards, and waiting huddled families.

Most of those offering testimonials, Ai Weiwei films inside refugee camps. Stark, somewhat formal, on-camera interviews with individuals provide first hand accounts of their victimization, anxiety, and bitterness.

Little of what we witness in Human Flow will be new to anyone following international events. In recent years, with the massive exodus of people from the Middle East into Europe, the military conflicts, the controversial status of undocumented workers, the deaths of thousands crossing the Mediterranean, and subsequent debates about what host counties ought to do, even the most disinterested of us is aware of the “human tide” pressing upon our shores.

Testimonies by refugee families in the film are interspersed with statements by officials-- professionals in the refugee business: we hear from doctors inspecting camp conditions, from human rights lawyers citing UN conventions, from a diplomatic Jordanian princess, from Hanan Ashrawi, Palestine’s most articulate representative, from UNICEF’s spokesperson in Lebanon, from Israel’s B’Tselem director, from the Carnegie Middle East director, from a UNHCR spokesman in Kenya. All offer choreographed, disembodied statements about the need for more, more, more…  

A short segment with the single politician in the film, Lebanon’s Walid Jumblatt, is noteworthy for its candor. About migrants, Jumblatt declares, “without memory you are nothing”; about refugee management he points to the hypocrisy of international refugee policies. In skimming over Jumblatt’s blunt assessments, Ai Weiwei missed the chance to explore more fundamental issues behind those pompous, exploding human rights’ businesses. He could have offered us a really piercing story, introducing Human Flow with Jumblatt’s provocative assertions followed by dialogue with Jumblatt about the financing of camps, the wars generating these exoduses, the pornographic use of pitiful images of victims, threaded together with the powerful visuals that Ai’s cameras capture. A lost opportunity by a man known for provocative, daring work.

As with his other projects, Ai Weiwei wants us to know he is there:  on the ground with sobbing refugees, beside his camera crew at a tense frontier, his hair disheveled by sand-laden desert winds. Here is the anthropologist, there-but-not-there, allowing refugees and their surroundings speak for themselves, images superimposed with an occasional news headline or quote from a Turkish or Arab poet to augment the pictures.

Which brings us, finally, to the images. What is new to our refugee portrait are spectacular aerial shots presenting a panorama of refugee living:—we are taken high above an endless, blue sea, a boat laden with escapees slowly moving into the frame; we gaze through a wide angle photo of a camps’ columns and columns of orderly white structures; another aerial encompasses countless scattered huts amid the detritus of their impermanence; we are held beside tents haphazardly pitched at a railway station, dwarfed by an enormous, slowly moving train passing resolutely behind. This is the “flow”-- perhaps more accurately termed “stagnation”-- that impacts the viewer more forcefully than faces and statements of refugees and administrators. 

Because of the director’s celebrity, a lot of people will want to see Human Flow. Still, given Ai Weiwei’s objective of using art to change perceptions, we need to ask: can this film do that?

 

 

[ In HUMAN FLOW, Ai Weiwei Turns His Activist Art to Global Refugees ]

ReReading "Grapes of Wrath" -- an early case of "disaster capitalism" at work

October 04, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“The tractors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects….They crawled over the ground, laying the track and rolling on it and picking it up. Diesel tractors, puttering while they stood idle; they thundered when they moved, and then settled down to a droning roar. Snub nosed monsters, raising the dust and sticking their snouts into it… across the country, through fences, through dooryards, in and out of gullies in straight lines. They did not run on the ground but on their own roadbeds. They ignored hills and gulches, water courses, fences, houses.

                “The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man: gloved, goggled, masked he was part of the monster, a robot in the seat…   …the tenant stared after it ...his wife… beside him, and the quiet children behind. And all of them stared after the tractor…”

This merciless machine might belong to Israeli militants preparing another Jewish colony-- a common scenario on Palestinian lands. The watching silent family could be the indigenous peoples of Brazil’s disappearing forests. Or farmers of Gujarat, India, relocated by the Sardar Sarovar dam. Just as First Nations’ livelihoods and wildlife habitants of Canada’s boreal forests were invaded to make way for Alberta’s massive oil extraction operation.

                That opening passage some will recognize from Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel -- perhaps the most powerful portrayal of a people uprooted, forced into poverty-- internally displaced refugees. It’s a process newly identified by Canadian researcher and author Naomi Klein as “disaster capitalism”. Klein brilliantly and poignantly defines the occurrence in her 2007 The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Shock Doctrine describes in unequivocal terms how corporations and companies  – I would include “non-profit” NGO institutions and human rights agencies among them--have learnt to respond with rapid-fire corporate reengineering of societies still reeling from shock to profit from a multitude of disasters:-- man-made catastrophes, wars, reckless economic policies, economic embargoes,  climate-induced disasters, or other world changing crises.

                Grapes of Wrath, written following droughts in the American West, recalls the removal of farmers from their homes and livelihoods across Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico. Those droughts arrived in waves between 1934 and 1940, precipitating a series of bad harvests, with wind erosion aggravated by an absence of dryland farming methods. After farmers’ credit was exhausted, banks foreclosed on family properties and turned over much of that ‘dust bowl’ to agribusiness which capitalized investments with the timely rapid mechanization of farm equipment. Tens of thousands of dispossessed families become migrants, moving westward with whatever they can carry atop their old vehicle, to answer a fraudulent promise of abundant jobs in California. As they move, many perishing on the way, they are confronted by distrust and contempt. They find themselves derided as ‘Okies’ by those met along their trek —“Keep moving; we don’t want your kind here”, they are warned.    

Steinbeck paints a poignant image of commercial bankers in league with those machines:

 “Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshipped the mathematics, because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said The Bank-- or the Company—needs-- wants—insists-- must have---- as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling which had ensnared them. These lasts would take no responsibility …” …”the bank--- the monster has to have profits all the time.  It can’t wait. It’ll die.”

Standing with the bosses, ready to enforce the corporate plan, are vigilantes and mean-spirited police wherever the migrants stop. Anyone daring to dissent is threatened with jail, blackmailed, ‘disappeared’.

The poor press silently on. 

At the end of their journey, desperate surviving refugees arrive in the green orchards of California eager to regain their dignity and family cohesion only to face new company men, also finding themselves competing with other hungry job seekers for lower and lower wages. Here too they are met by bosses allied with police authorities to maximize their own gains, driving the uprooted families to greater degrees of desperation.

Are those 1930 ‘Okies’ not ancestors of our estimated 25 million refugees now wandering over our globe? Not only are today’s ‘Okies’ viewed with suspicion; their homelands are occupied by one kind of disaster capital complex or another, diverting national resources into foreign assets, fishing coves into tourist resorts, mixed farmlands into single cash crop ventures, and bankrupting their governments with US-made defense imports. 

                Grapes of Wrath is perhaps the earliest dramatization in English of what we now recognize as “disaster capitalism” (although nothing of that is indicated in summaries of the story https://www.arts.gov/partnerships/nea-big-read/the-grapes-of-wrath.) The epic journey of Steinbeck’s Joad family began with a climate disaster—droughts that turned vast farmlands into what became know as the dustbowl, invoked in Wood Guthrie’s 1940 collection Dust Bowl Ballads..

Some may recall, as I did, a passionate story of the Joad family, with the noble Tom Joad striving to keep hope alive; and Ma Joad, the optimistic matriarch directing her forlorn, dwindling family forward.  What I remembered from the novel and the film are beautifully crafted characters with their personal hardships and disparate responses to misfortune. In the character of Tom Joad, artists have found inspiration: there was singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, himself a dustbowl refugee from Oklahoma; two generations later, Steppenwolf Theatre Company produced a stage version of Grapes of Wrath; and in his 1995 album “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, Bruce Springsteen draws comparisons between the dustbowl and modern times.

Today, temporarily immobilized by an accident, I’m rereading Grapes of Wrath after a 40 year hiatus. Now Steinbeck’s political message moves into the forefront. This is not the history of a climate refugee family. It is the history of capitalism in America—disaster capitalism-- with an alliance of police force and wealth, where machinery is supreme, where honest labor is not enough, and where the family is secondary--a worthy reread in modern American times.  END

[ ReReading "Grapes of Wrath" -- an early case of "disaster capitalism" at work ]


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