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Ai Weiwei Brings Politics, Humanity to ‘Human Flow’

Movie about refugees gets Republican and Democratic lawmakers to agree on something

Ai Weiwei’s film “Human Flow” traverses the globe to examine the refugee crisis. (Courtesy “Human Flow”)
Ai Weiwei’s film “Human Flow” traverses the globe to examine the refugee crisis. (Courtesy “Human Flow”)

Politics is seldom far removed from Ai Weiwei’s art, whether it comes in the form of a memorial to his dissident father, an iconic Olympics stadium in Beijing, Lego portraits of political prisoners or, in his latest venture, a documentary about refugees, “Human Flow.”

Aside from the accomplishment of shooting a movie in extremely dangerous locations across the globe about extremely desperate people, the artist has now been able to do that rarest of things for Washington: get a Republican and Democrat in the same room to agree on something.

“It’s an amazing, beautiful movie that gets progressively harder to watch,” Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, said of “Human Flow.”

Ai Weiwei Talks Refugee Crisis, New Movie

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“The words that came into my mind were beautiful heartbreak,” said Rep. Randy Hultgren, an Illinois Republican.

These two members, one representing Beverly Hills, the other Chicagoland’s exurbs, joined Ai in Washington on Sept. 25 to screen “Human Flow” at E Street Cinema.

A few days later, on Sept. 29, President Donald Trump informed Congress he would be lowering the cap for refugees to be resettled in the United States in fiscal 2018 from 110,000 to 45,000 — a concrete reminder of the role the country plays in addressing the needs of an estimated 22.5 million refugees worldwide.

Ai approaches his subjects both from literally thousands of feet up — employing drones to film refugee camps so distant that they look like geometric paintings in the vein of his contemporary, Jasper Johns — and at the ground level, where people struggle to find water, shelter, food or a safe place for a pet cat.

“You’re trying not to get the viewers lost, by just making it too general, but at the same time you have to give them perspective,” Ai said.

“The real, real tragedy is on each person. A women, a child, every second they’re in this reality. Do they have a future, you would ask. And the answer is always quite sad,” Ai said, noting the average refugee has been displaced for more than 20 years, according to UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency. “So that basically is their life,” he said.

The film, which opens Friday in Washington, mostly stays away from the familiar trope of talking heads holding forth in staid environments accompanied by graphs or illustrations.

Instead, Ai isn’t afraid to hold a shot of a refugee pausing after explaining her situation. He opts to show refugees at work, unloading other refugees from boats in frigid waters or distributing aid.

A desperate need

He also comes back, again and again, to people desperately clinging to their sense of humanity in difficult times.

“The most difficult part is when you’re filming these images, you see these people desperately need some understanding. It’s not really they need money or some kind of support. They really need people to look at them and see them as human beings,” he said.

There is not much Congress can do once the Trump administration determines the cap for resettling refugees in the United States, aside from leveraging the appropriations process or overhauling overall U.S. policy. But whether the U.S. resettles 45,000 or 110,000, the issue goes beyond those people alone. The 22.5 million number is one that grows seemingly every day, from Libya to Turkey to Bangladesh.

Perhaps the hardest truth Ai faces is that, despite the effect his film might have in illustrating the humanity of refugees and the scale of their problems globally, he must eventually move on.

“When you do this kind of film, you know you’re going to leave them,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of situation they’re in. You cannot really help them, because the number is too huge. And it’s impossible to help them. So, that’s very difficult. You try to think, OK, I’m an artist. I make this film, the film would tell what the situation is. But still they haunt you, a lifetime, to think about those children, and they have such a hope when you’re there. But you have to just turn away, to do something else.”

His congressional patrons see an opportunity to educate those who might not be able to make such human connections.

“Everyone has a hundred things going on in life,” Lieu said. “They don’t typically walk around thinking about these issues.” This movie “has a tremendous opportunity to shift public opinion,” he said, so that policymakers and the public see the human element at work.

“You can’t walk away from this and not see the human struggle,” Hultgren said. “Making that human connection does have an impact on us as members of Congress. Numbers can make your eyes glaze over. But seeing human beings …” Hultgren said, pausing on that thought.

“There’s no ultimate solution with all the things we’re seeing, but if we can help in one spot, in two, in five, in ten … that’s worth it. That makes a difference.”

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