The eponymous flow in the title of Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei’s latest documentary is not necessarily a good thing. The film, which encapsulates the entirety of the refugee crisis in Europe, moves from region to region, lingering long enough to make the film feel a bit bloated, but never long enough to tackle any one area with specificity or differentiate them from each other. Occasionally, factoids scroll from left to right on the screen, as if the film were a plain news broadcast.
It is beautifully shot, but one cannot help but feel that aesthetically-driven films about the refugee crisis (see last year’s lauded Fire at Sea, which was hindered by a similar style), which beautify harsh living conditions and wretched peoples forced to inhabit those conditions, are fundamentally flawed. Ai, a bit of an egoist, may not have been the right person to make this documentary. In injecting himself and his large personality into many of the mundane sequences, he adds humanity to the film at the consequence of making it al feel about him. Shots of utter depravity are mollified by subsequent shots of Ai taking selfies with his subjects, or getting a haircut, and it all feels rather narcissistic. Furthermore, in calling attention to the presence of himself and his team making the documentary, the film is reduced to artificiality; certain scenes feel absolutely scripted. One scene is implied to be an interview, ended abruptly; we see a shot of the refugee’s back, crying as Ai comforts her and makes hand motions to the camera — yet if this scene was, in fact, an interview, why is there no camera behind him, focused on his subject?
With a broad scale, the film moves from large-scale depiction to large-scale depiction that pinpoints unique differences between every specific environment, while simultaneously showing the universality of the suffering of the immigrants. It is aptly painful to watch, but one cannot help but feel a little bit desensitized at the barrage of human injustices. Drone shots to document the large size of encampments tend to diminish the human figures into ant-like dots on the landscape, which seems to go against the very humanist ideas that Ai attempts. Ultimately, this feels like another refugee documentary that fails to accurately represent the refugee crisis in a satisfying manner, though at this point, it is hard to envision what something like that would look like.
Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris, on the other hand, depicts a beautiful effect of globalization and modernity in an unsentimental fashion. Libraries and the printed word are moribund, old-school concepts, threatened by a changing technological landscape. Wiseman, in his extended fashion, reassures that the institutions are here to stay, showcasing their adaptive quality through The New York Public Library and its newfound role in a digital society as hubs of social interaction, intellectual transference, and diverse discussion. Each branch, scattered across NYC (92 to be exact) fulfill geographically, demographically-specific objectives. Ex Libris justifies its run-time: The NYPL requires three and a half hours to explore because the new library is individualized to the patron.
In his usual fashion, Wiseman avoids heavy-handed didacticism by removing himself almost entirely from the film, allowing audiences to glean what they will entirely independently through the images presented. His most versatile tool is his editing, which is always precise, ideologically-charged — he holds on images just long enough for them to make sense, not too long for them to become boring — cutting from image to image in a way that intuitively links them together. Individual scenes of events within the library present their own ideas through the nature of the events — listening to a board meeting about library funds, for example, demonstrates the bureaucracy within, and listening to a writer talk about his novel gives detached insights into the creative process — but it is in the way that all of these scenes can be cohered into a central thesis that Wiseman embodies his documentary expertise. There is also a simple joy to be gained from watching passionate bibliophiles interact. Intellectualism and that thirst for knowledge is always an inspiring thing to see.
In a landscape of talking head documentaries that tell you what they are about and how to feel, Wiseman’s oeuvre is such a necessary delineation. The octogenarian, active now for fifty years, consistently reminds us of the full potential of the documentary film with each new project.