There are moments in “Human Flow,” a bracing, often strangely beautiful movie by the artist Ai Weiwei, when it can be hard to see the individuals who make up the roiling, surging rivers onscreen. This difficulty in isolating specific people — really seeing them as sovereign beings rather than as an undifferentiated mass — is crucial to the meaning of the documentary, which charts the global refugee and migrant crisis. Shot over the course of one year in 23 countries, the movie tracks the here and there of people whose relentless ebbing and flowing make startlingly visible what news headlines repeatedly suggest: that ours is an age of ceaseless churn with no calm in sight.
A dissident Chinese artist now living in Berlin, Mr. Ai is a major art-world figure who’s had a more modest cinematic profile until now. He’s directed other nonfiction titles, and is the subject of Alison Klayman’s very fine feature documentary, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” which was shot when he was still living in China. Although Mr. Ai occasionally shows up in “Human Flow,” in oblique glimpses and hovering at the edges of the frame, he plays an appropriately discreet role in his own documentary. In one scene, he walks along a waterfront where refugees are arriving by boat; elsewhere, he comforts a distraught woman and, to his credit, makes the scene about her and not him.
Mr. Ai’s ambition in “Human Flow” is as expansive as his reach and his apparently deep-pocketed resources. (More than 200 crew members, including a half-dozen drone operators, were involved in this worldwide journey.) Some documentaries find multitudes in fixed locations, as is the case with Gianfranco Rosi’s “Fire at Sea,” about an Italian island that’s become a destination for African, Asian and Middle Eastern refugees. Mr. Ai instead takes an ambulatory approach and wanders the globe, traveling to Africa (Kenya), Southeast Asia (Malaysia) and the Middle East (Israel, Jordan) as well as to North America and many ports of call throughout Europe.
“Human Flow” opens and closes with aquatically themed imagery, beginning with a shot of a deep, dazzlingly blue body of water. It’s a soothing, almost meditative vision as well as a seductive dream of nature as a balm and refuge. This pacific picture, though, is soon replaced by far more disturbing, recurrent images of perilously small boats filled with frantically shouting, gesturing men, women and children seeking asylum. In one makeshift port and then another there is splashing and disembarking and then cries and hugs as babies are gingerly passed from hand to hand. It’s a distressing, familiar scene in some ways, one that has been playing on our televisions for years.
What Mr. Ai seeks is to go far beyond the nightly news; he wants to give you a sense of the scale of the crisis, its terrifying, world-swallowing immensity. And so he jumps from one heartbreak to the next, passes through Gaza, drops into Pakistan, spends time in Turkey and ambles along the border separating (somewhat) Mexico and the United States, where an American border guard rather ridiculously tries to explain where Mr. Ai can and cannot go. Mr. Ai also visits a number of refugee camps that range from the squalid to the unimaginable and, as he does throughout, he shows you both the dignity and the misery at street level before using drones to soar over the camps.
These drone views help give “Human Flow” a velvety smooth look that is occasionally punctuated by jagged cellphone images, at least some of which Mr. Ai seems to have shot. Drone visuals can come off as faddish, gimmicky, but the airborne material here consistently puts Mr. Ai’s ideas into pure, visual terms. He incorporates reams of information in the movie, sometimes through interviews or through data that crawls along the screen, ticker-tape style. Every so often, he folds in an elegant or haunting quote, giving you something to think about as the camera shows a world in which, step by step, crisis by crisis, borders have become by turns absurd and immaterial.