Ai Wei Wei’s ‘The Rest’ accurately portrays the rigour of today’s European refugee crisis

Ai Wei Wei’s ‘The Rest’ accurately portrays the rigour of today’s European refugee crisis

Words by Jacob Nazroo


If you’re up for some political contemplation at the Melbourne International Film Festival, The Rest might be your best bet. More than a sequel to 2017’s Human Flow, the documentary is comprised solely of leftover material from its predecessor’s on-the-ground footage of refugee and asylum seeker plights.

But, notwithstanding aesthetically pleasing cinematography, this time round, director, producer and Chinese artist of international fame, Ai Wei Wei, doesn’t deliver the breadth nor depth of coverage that its prequel does. Perhaps Ai is owed a bit of slack here, given this film is literally ‘The Rest’ of what was, presumably, Human Flow’s best footage. A bit less forgivable, however, is the fact that at no point does the film tell us it’s two years old, which could easily mislead viewers not in the know.

Despite the dubious contemporary relevance of its finer details, the broader political and humanitarian problems documented in The Rest remain, unquestionably, pertinent. Focusing on Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis, the film traverses much of Europe, from Sweden to Turkey. It documents massive makeshift refugee camps, anti-refugee rallies and the occasional insight from third, fourth and fifth parties we perhaps wouldn’t otherwise consider, like a cemetery caretaker discussing the influx of dead bodies amid spikes of mass fleeing from the Middle-East.

Similarly, we hear of obscure ramifications of desperate ventures across, for example, the Mediterranean, like the grievances of a staunchly anti-refugee Turkish woman unable to eat fish due to the recent contamination of local waters by drowned asylum seekers. But refugees and asylum seekers in various situations do most of the talking. These situations range mostly from dire to slightly less dire, though the odd success story pops up. This range of perspectives is good, but not as impressive as the prequel’s, which featured interviews with politicians and NGO reps from the likes of UNHCR. So, a lack of penetration into the nuts and bolts of immigration politics leaves an important dimension unexplored.

This might lead film critics to a fork in the road: how much should we expect from artists who make documentaries about deeply political problems? Do they owe us and those at the heart of these problems thorough journalistic investigation? Or do we have no right to criticise, so long as we find the artistic value we expect?

Whatever your opinion there, The Rest’s emotional blow will afflict most viewers and, ultimately, politics aside, there are many examples of humans not caring enough until they literally see the problem that suggests this documentary is important.

The music is more contemplative than dark and gloomy, which, along with its sparseness, provides refreshing relief from the feeling of having themes imposed on you. Also, despite bouncing between interviews with dozens of asylum seekers and refugees, the film at times pulls out deep and touching expositions of humanity and personality. A memorable example is a shot of a group of refugees at Idomeni, a makeshift refugee camp in Greece at the border with Macedonia (home in 2016 to 15,000 people): several stand in the rain, like human tent polls, holding overhead a tarp which covers a young woman as she plays a piano for what she later tells interviewers is the first time in three years.

Offering an extended look, with rare intimacy, at the worst consequences of a serious humanitarian problem, The Rest is worth a watch, especially for the politically-inclined viewer. It will at least offer regularly arresting cinematography and it will hopefully prompt many to reflect on some important philosophical questions about where to draw the line between insider and outsider.