“That’s my life jacket!” Speculative documentary as a counter strategy to documentary taxidermy —  2019

AuthorsThomas Bellinck & An van. Dienderen
Published inCritical Arts, South-North Cultural and Media Studies


Despite the socially committed attitude many documentary artists take, documentaries often end up underpinning a large-scale epistemological enterprise linked to global capitalism and Western colonialism (Steyerl 2011). Ai WeiWei’s Human Flow(2017), an award-winning documentary about the ‘refugee crisis’, provides an insightful case-study. The film’s well-intended activism becomes a mere trope that does not prompt any change. The formal strategies that Ai Weiwei deploys, do not address the power differentials between the filmmakers and their subjects, so that neither viewers nor subjects are left with any form of agency.

In contrast, this article argues for embracing a speculative form of documentary that puts the messiness of the on-screen and on-stage reality at its heart,typical of the relations between representation and reality, between the West and its constructed ‘others’. Inspired by the pioneers of documentary art, we look for ways to go against the grain of a taxidermic, image-positivist mainstream. We wish to challenge dominant formatting through the production of blurry images that defy static paradigms. We think it is vital to reflect on existing power differentials, both geopolitically and in artistic processes. Acknowledging the impossibility to access the real in an unmediated manner, we believe in the intertwining of ethics and form; and in the transformative potential of art. Through our practice-based research as film and theatre makers, we hope to offer an insight into the speculative documentary’s possible counter-strategies.



speculative documentary;  practice-based research; Ai Weiwei;  documentary pioneers; cross-disciplinary research; taxidermic documentary; documentary theatre; documentary film; visual economy




In the winter of 2017, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei premiered his documentary Human Flow at the Venice International Film Festival. In sweeping terms, the film’s synopsis states: “Artist, activist and director Ai Weiwei captures the global refugee crisis – the greatest human displacement since World War II – in this breathtakingly epic film journey”(Magnolia Pictures 2017). The film generally received raving reviews. “Ai Weiwei’s refugee documentary weighs on your heart like a cannonball”- The Telegraph (Colin 2017). “This is angry, thoughtful, straightforward activist journalism: blunt, simple and impossible to ignore”- Time Out (Calhoun 2017). “Ai doesn’t castigate or preach. He doesn’t have to. The facts, the images, speak for themselves. Instead, he bears witness”- Boston Globe (Feeney 2017). The film was screened at numerous festivals; it received several prizes and was shortlisted for an Oscar. Running for nearly two and a half hours, the film sees Ai Weiwei visit more than 20 countries, including conflict zones such as Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, border-zones like that of the United States with Mexico, and numerous migrant camps in Turkey, Greece, Lebanon, Kenya, Germany, and France. More than 200 crew members and 25 cameras were needed to make this high production value film, which was praised for its engaging combination of cinematic quality, social criticism and powerful activism.

But is this really the case? As documentary artists, we, filmmaker An van. Dienderen and theatre maker Thomas Bellinck, want to argue that Human Flow does not address the power differentials between its maker and its subjects – despite its use of formal tropes to reassure the audience that we are dealing with an activist and critical documentary. The film actually underscores the problematic dominant imagery of migrants as helpless victims. Confirming the status quo, it immobilises both its subjects and its viewers, while taking the possible breadth of change out of both positions. Despite the socially committed attitude many documentary artists take, documentaries, such as Human Flow,often end up underpinning a large-scale epistemological enterprise that is closely linked to the projects of global capitalism and Western colonialism (Steyerl 2011).

In her description of the romantic conservatism of Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North, media scholar Fatimah Rony brings up the term ‘taxidermy’. “The metaphor of taxidermy – a form of representation which is infused with an acknowledgement of death, but also a desire ‘to be whole’- describes a plethora of technologies popular at the turn of the century used to represent the human body, including photography, film, and wax figures”(Rony 1996: 244). Documentary filmmakers are notorious for such dissecting methods. As early as 1887, the Lumière brothers completed the Village Ashanti series, which featured 12 short dances performed by women of colour. Yet the fact that the series was filmed at the Lyon World Exhibition suggests an entirely different story, one wrapped up in colonialism, imperialism and exploitation (van. Dienderen 2008). Such documentaries are the result of a delicately obscured ‘taxidermic operation’. The ‘objects’of interest, these human beings, are carved up and presented as stereotyped distortions in a freak show, as there is no room to weigh in on how they are represented. They seem to be uninvited guests in their own script. Moreover, ‘viewers’, missing crucial information about its production process, have no point of reference in order to assess the programme’s relation to reality. Unaware of the taxidermist at work, they judge the film’s objectified‘others’as such. In this way, taxidermic documentary images, representing clichés, stereotypes and established values that are part of a cultural hegemony, help to maintain a certain balance of power. As Gilles Deleuze points out, clichés rather than images typify our society (Deleuze 1983, 1985): billions of people are surrounded and guided by identity clichés and they model their lives upon them.In contrast, inspired by the pioneers of documentary art, we will argue for embracing the documentary as a form that puts the messiness of on-screen and on-stage reality at its heart and that inextricably binds formal and process-oriented experimentation to questions of decolonisation and anti-capitalism.





The life-jacketisation of migration

Like so many other contemporary documentaries – from award-winning films such as Gianfranco Rossi’s Fuocoammare (2016) and Gabrielle Brady’s Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018) to some of our own work – Human Flow is part of a flourishing visual economy engrafted onto the illegalisation of certain forms of human mobility. As artists, we unavoidably play a role in, capitalise on and bear responsibility for this visual economy. This became clear to Thomas Bellinck during the research for The Miracle of Almería, a 3-part TV-series about the intertwining of industrial agriculture and migrant labour in the Spanish province of Almería, which he is collaborating on as a writer and actor’s director under the direction of filmmaker Moon Blaisse. During the preparatory interviews, Blaisse and Bellinck noticed how even migrants themselves started adjusting their behaviour in order to comply with the supposed interests of the documentary makers. Once, only a few minutes after they had been introduced toa Malian greenhouse worker, the latter started sharing intimate details about his journey across the Mediterranean Sea, which his travelling companion who did not survive.When Blaisse and Bellinck asked why he was sharing this unsolicited testimony, he replied without irony: “Because that is what you want to hear?”

The Mediterranean Sea is without doubt the most iconic and lucrative topos of the visual economy of the illegalisation of migration. On a daily basis, European citizens consume night shots of wet people helplessly stretching out their hands to their white saviours, top shots of chock-full rickety dinghies and side-views of dead children washed ashore. As anthropologist Ruben Andersson writes:

The images, […] depicting a ‘sea of humanity’without a past, fix the notion of the clandestine migrant as a helpless, nameless body, sinking into the dark waters. In rescuing this drowning body a virtuous circle is born, where the tasks of patrolling, caring for, and informing on clandestine migration blur into one another. The production, distribution and appropriation of images – in short, the visual economy of clandestine migration – mirrors and even facilitates this mixing of roles…(Andersson 2014: 193-194).

The past few years Ai Weiwei has created an expanding body of work on the so-called ‘refugees crisis’, re-enacting iconic media pictures and fashioning sculptures out of objets trouvés. Next to the contested reenactment of a picture of the dead body of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who washed up on a beach near the Turkish town of Bodrum in 2015, these works have taken the shape of floating lotus flowers made of life jackets scouted on the beaches of the Greek island of Lesbos or of a 60-metre inflatable raft made of the same manufactured rubber as that of the vessels that carry migrants across the Mediterranean. Rather than appropriating these objects and destabilising the relationship between signifier and signified, Ai Weiwei literally inserts pieces of reality into these artworks, granting them an aura of authenticity and buttressing his status of ‘artivist’. During the shooting of The Miracle of Almería, Moon Blaisse and Thomas Bellinck discussed a series of pictures of such ‘artivist artworks’with two of the actors, both of whom had migrated from Mali to Almería. The images included a picture of Ai Weiwei’s covering of the columns of the Berlin concert hall with 14,000 life jackets. Suddenly, one of the actors half-jokingly cried out: “Mais ça c’est mon gilet de sauvetage! Qu’est-ce qu’il foute avec mon gilet? Il faut qu’on lui demande de retourner mon gilet!”[But that’s my life jacket! What on earth is he doing with my life jacket? We need to ask him to return my life jacket!]

Unsurprisingly, Human Flow too opens and closes with images of the Mediterranean Sea, beginning with a sequence of well-composed, meditative shots of an unfathomably blue body of water and dinghies passing by. Cut to an image of Ai Weiwei crouching in the verge, filming. Cut to a chaotic, hand-held shot of a rescue mission. Cut to Ai Weiwei, sporting the archetypical aid worker’s yellow DayGlow vest, as he supports an exhausted, shaking young man, wrapped in an equally archetypical golden emergency blanket. In one of the very first spoken lines of the movie, we hear the man thanking Ai Weiwei, who touches the man’s cheek and replies: “You are a good man.”The reproduction and circulation of aquatic emergency and rescue images – that we once heard a sociologist describe as ‘the life-jacketisation of migration’- goes hand in hand with a whole series of water metaphors that have come to lodge themselves in common parlance. As such, the title of Ai Weiwei’s documentary, Human Flow, perfectly links up with the US embassy’s leaked cables detailing the “waves of migration”arriving in Greece (The Guardian 2011), with the European Commission’s desire to “channel”and “stem”“irregular flows”(European Political Strategy Centre 2017); with the Financial Times’“human tsunami”(Knight 2009), Reuters’“tide of asylum-seekers”(Elumami 2018) or the BBC’s “stream”of migrants“flooding”trains in Italy (Bell 2015). As sociologist Marc Bernardot points out, such aquatic metaphors dehumanise migrants by portraying individuals as an ever-moving, undifferentiated mass, as an elementary force of nature in need of hydraulic control (Bernardot 2016).

We do not wish to diminish the tremendous suffering of those who make the passage overseas in any way, but we cannot help but wonder who stands to benefit from the overexploitation of such sea emergency imagery. Especially when we consider that migrants arriving in Italy between March 2016 and January 2017 indicated witnessing more than double the amount of deaths in Libya or the Sahara Desert than in the Mediterranean Sea (Brian 2017) or that more than the majority of illegalised migrants living in Europe have never set foot on board of a dinghy, but are actually visa overstayers (Andersson 2014). To what extent does the life-jacketisation of migration, framing migrants as passive objects of humanitarian care, underpin the humanitarian rationale and rhetorics of the EU migration apparatus that is tasked with ‘hydraulic control’? It is certainly worth taking a closer look at the online communication of Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, which frequently “deploys a humanitarian narrative about saving migrants from dangerous illegal journeys, only to return them to the lives of poverty they were fleeing”(Feldman 2012: 26). Despite its role in mass surveillance, migration enforcement and return operations, Frontex’visual communication readily makes use of aquatic emergency stereotypes, making their flickr account at times virtually indistinguishable from that of search and rescue NGO’s or some Pulitzer prize winning humanitarian photojournalists.


Activism as a visual trope

From the opening scene of aquatic rescue onwards, Ai Weiwei proceeds to assume a plethora of roles. He plays the aid worker, dragging shipwrecked people ashore. He plays the volunteer, grilling sausages on a makeshift barbecue in a migrant camp. He plays the therapist, running for a basket in which a woman can vomit while he caresses her hair, telling her “It’s OK”. He plays the empathetic foreign correspondent, interviewing numerous specialists from UNHCR or readjusting the lapel microphone on their clothing. He plays the world-renowned artist, talking to a group of young Palestinian women, one of whom is holding a 60$ art publication entitled Andy Warhol & Ai Weiwei. But above all, he plays the activist, having his hair shaved in a migrant camp until only his bald head remains. His haircut seems to symbolize his engagement, his activism, his companionship. By shaving his head he puts himself on a par with the surrounding migrants, with whom he is often said to identify because of his own history of dissidence, imprisonment and exile. As he states in the press notes of the film: “I see those people coming down to the boats as my family. They could be my children, could be my parents, could be my brothers. I don’t see myself as any different from them.”Throughout the film, Ai Weiwei constantly aligns himself with the migrants he puts on the screen: he positions himself (visually) next to them. He participates in their agony by being filmed himself while he is filming them with his smartphone, just like youngsters who are filming a concert in order to participate in the event. He is filmed while holding a piece of paper that reads “#Ai Weiwei stands with refugees.”The aim of such scenes is clear: the audience needs to be convinced that Ai Weiwei is committed, that he really cares for the migrants, that he shares their anxiety and misery and that with this film he will make a difference.

In Human Flow, this mechanism of identification is carried to an extreme during a perversely comical scene in which Ai Weiwei trades his passport for that of the Syrian Abdullah Mahmoud. After trading some jokes about swapping nationalities, Mahmoud says: “If you want to take my tent…”Ai Weiwei replies: “Then you have to take my studio in Berlin. I have a studio in Berlin.”Then, the symbolic reversal of positions is over. We see them swapping their passports again as Ai Weiwei adds: “I respect the passport and I respect you.”Quite unintentionally the scene lays bare one of the most painful discrepancies of the film, the power differentials that exist between Ai Weiwei and the migrants whose humanity he wishes to portray. While Ai Weiwei and his film crew travel to more than 20 countries, the migrants are stuck in front of fences, in migrant camps and crappy tents. As he well intentionally appropriates their misery, there is no critical reflection on the different position he holds as an internationally celebrated artist who has seemingly unlimited access to funding resources for his high production value film. As TJ Demos writes:

… the filmmaker’s position functions as a blind spot that remains largely unexamined, for Ai’s appearances throughout the film evidence another kind of human flow that receives no comment: that of the privileged tourist or artistic nomad, a figure who has the means to travel with relative ease, owing to elevated economic and cultural status and the right kind of passport. In other words, the film’s condition of possibility owes to the very expanding inequality – as between tourist and asylum seeker – that is symptomatic of the causes of migration in the first place (Demos 2018).

Nowhere does Ai Weiwei address this notion of privilege and inequality. Yet, it is the maintaining of these inequalities that lies at the core of Western ‘migration management’.However, it is a privilege that connects him to the policymakers that he interviews, to Human Flow’s opening night audience at the Venice International Film Festival, to us.


The question of agency

The activist hyperagency Ai Weiwei displays throughout the film, contrasts starkly with the lack of agency of both its objectified subjects and its viewers. Human Flow creates a worldview that confirms the existent image production of dominant media in which migrants are nameless, even powerless victims who follow the rules and demands of static geo-political forces that largely remain unidentified. For, although the film seemingly makes use of different ‘authoritarian strategies’of the documentary regime -‘voices of authority’, facts and figures, headlines from respected newspapers – there is no insight into the real causes of the humanitarian crisis on display. Film theoretician Bill Nichols, who providedan insightful analysis of different modes of the documentary gesture (Nichols 1994), would probably label Human Flow as an expository film: “Expository documentary is an ideal mode for conveying information […] within a framework that pre-exists the film […] An expository film will add to our stockpile of knowledge but not challenge or subvert the categories by which such knowledge gets organized”(Nichols 1994: 109). Somehow, documentaries always reflect on the paradigm of imminent reality. Expository documentaries do not challenge the existing paradigm, but maintain a common-sense frame of reality. Likewise, other than a superficial complaint about global warming, Human Flowoffers no real lead into the specific conditions and structural geo-political powers that have led to this so-called ‘refugee crisis’, the gargantuan scale of which is constantly stressed. There is a crisis. This a static given, without any possibility of change.

This numbing stasis most notably infects the way the on-screen identity of migrants is constructed and communicated. Whereas the classic expository ‘voices of authority’- experts such as doctors, aid workers, policy makers, and even an astronaut and a Jordanian princess – are always credited with their name, surname and job description, the film’s migrants have no names or job description. Only in the final credits do their names appear, all together, as one faceless mass of interviewees. Thus, they remain anonymous, homogenised victims of unclear geopolitical forces. Whenever they speak, they are granted only a couple of sentences in the edit, which generally reaffirm their migrant-hood and defencelessness. At times, their words are not even translated, but merely subtitled with “speaking in Arabic”. Whenever the experts address the migrants’condition, they identify them as“them”, “they”; never with names, never implying any agency. It feels as though there is no other room for migrants in the film than as executors of a static worldview that cannot be altered or challenged.

It is characteristic of expository documentaries that this attributed lack of agency on the part of the objectified subjects coincides with an induced lack of agency on the part of its viewers, who cannot but consume the static worldview that is presented. Of course, the overwhelming vastness of the suffering at hand – the causes of which are outsourced to geopolitical power games and incomprehensible evil – makes us feel sympathy, but it does not make us feel we have agency. It invokes in us a self-deceptive kind of pity that distracts from our own responsibility and part in the structural violence that the visual economy of the illegalisation of migration professes to denounce. Essayist Susan Sontag most eloquently phrased this myopia: “So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence”(Sontag 2003: 102). We fully agree with TJ Demos when he observes that Human Flow is a cinema of liberalism, manifesting “empathy for the wretched of the earth in an effort to humanize the dispossessed and disenfranchised. It leaves viewers with a nagging feeling of undefined guilt, but also with reassuring visions of redemption, manifested in images of encompassing filmic splendor and Ai caring for the less fortunate”(Demos 2018).

Human Flow is part of a massive market of liberal-humanitarian documentaries that are consumed on different platforms. Often, their activism is a mere trope that helps to sell the film, but does not trigger any real change in reflection, discourse, actions, etc. The formal strategies deployed by Ai Weiwei are inherited from mainstream documentaries in which power differentials between the filmmakers and their subject are not addressed. For all its activist discourses and visual tropes, we see the reemergence of a specific set of formal strategies that actually immobilise both the subjects and the viewers of the film. As such, Human Flowis a typical example of the mainstream documentaries that Steyerl states often criticize unfair power structures on the content level, but fail to do so with regard to form and  power differentials. Thus, they underscore a large-scale epistemological enterprise that is closely linked to the projects of global capitalism and Western colonialism (Steyerl 2011).


Recalibrating the distribution of the sensible

We concur with TJ Demos when he writes: “Rather than simply dismiss Human Flowas only the most recent in a long line of liberal humanitarian portrayals, which, in playing to its viewers emotions and empathy do little to address the massive challenges of the situation, we should ask how might we work toward progress otherwise?”(Demos 2018). That question is one of the raisons d’être of Simple as ABC, Thomas Bellinck’s series of performances and installations tackling the apparatus of Western ‘migration management’: what artistic strategies can we use to shift the focus away from the humanitarian border spectacle and system-supporting myopic commiseration? In our own respective practices, we want to (and must) ask how we can critically question the power structures inherent in documentary making. How can we deal with our own inevitable blind spots and positions of power? How can we undermine the documentary’s authoritative claim to knowledge and truth? How can we subvert and unravel the market-driven taxidermic and forensic formats of a mainstream documentary industry? How can we recalibrate what philosopher Jacques Rancière calls ‘the distribution of the sensible’, the implicit set of rules that determine what can and should be perceived, seen, heard, said, thought, made or done (Rancière 2000)? Interestingly, Rancière stresses the importance of the notion of ‘dissensus’over‘resistance’: “I would rather talk about dissensus than resistance. Dissensus is a modification of the coordinates of the sensible, a spectacle or a tonality that replaces another. […] That’s one way of keeping one’s distance from the shopworn affect of indignation and instead exploring the political resources of a more discrete affect – curiosity”(Carnevale and Kelsey 2007: 259-261).