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Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's latest film project 'gives refugees humanity'

Ai Weiwei has addressed the refugee issue in his work before [Getty]

Date of publication: 1 September, 2017

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A 23-country epic about the migration crisis by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, aiming to "give refugees humanity", has had its international premiere at Venice film festival.

Celebrated Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has showcased his latest project at Venice film festival - an epic 23-country documentary essay on the global refugee crisis, Human Flow.

A crew of 200 people were needed to put together the film, which had its international premiere on Friday, which includes humanising detail that Weiwei says is lacking in mainstream media coverage of the migration story.

"It is a challenge when you are making a film," Weiwei told AFP in Venice.

"You see daily news footage about the tragedies. But after you do some studies you realise that those footages are all the same. It is about shocking, it is about violence, it is about crisis.

"Our film is different. It is trying to give refugees a more historical (context), humanity and to relate to daily life: how a woman holds her child, how a child puts on his shoes, how a man is lighting a cigarette.

"All those details relate to everyone. You can understand they are human, even in these conditions that you cannot imagine."

Lesbos to Gaza

Journalism, he says, has for a long time been too keen to pursue stories around the most shocking images available. And when it comes to refugees, "it has not talked deeply about who they are and what the reason is for them being where they are".

Weiwei's film takes him on a journey from Lesbos, the Greek island that was at the frontline of Europe's migration crisis when the film was made in 2016, to Kenya's huge Dadaab refugee camp, via the slums of Gaza, the Afghan-Pakistan border area and the battlefields of Iraq, before ending up on the US-Mexico border that President Donald Trump has promised to turn into "a beautiful wall".

Weiwei has addressed the refugee issue in his work before, notably when he wrapped Berlin's Konzerthaus in thousands of orange life vests recovered from Lesbos and by using his own body to recreate an image of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose washed-up corpse provided one of the current crisis's defining images.

"I tried almost desperately to make a shout, to make my voice heard," Weiwei said of his previous work.

"But I realised that is not enough for myself to understand the topic. It is so broad and has such deep history, such complexity. 

"So I decided to make a film: it is a journey to show how I learned and what, and to have the possibility to show other people."

Weiwei has produced several documentaries before but this is first attempt at making an essay in film on a global scale, with the final product merging text, often poetry, and still photography with the moving images.

"You don't watch this film, you experience it," says the executive producer, Andrew Cohen.

"It is not didactic or polemical - it does not preach or take sides. Weiwei is not a fancy reporter with an inflated ego. He is a lifelong refugee himself with a down-to-earth approach that brings us directly in to the experience."

Weiwei, who has been an outspoken critic of the Chinese government, was held under house arrest without charge for three months in 2011 and banned from travelling outside China until 2015. He is now based in Berlin.

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