After Denied Entry to Gaza, Ai Weiwei Films in Israel and the West Bank

After initial denial, the artist was granted entry to Gaza in a speedy procedure.

Ai Weiwei and a film crew in the West Bank, Monday, May 9. Courtesy of Einat Fishbain via Facebook.

The socially-engaged artist Ai Weiwei, who is currently working on a documentary film on refugees, landed in Israel yesterday, May 9, to conduct a series of interviews for his upcoming film project.

Ai visited Jerusalem and the West Bank, and was planning on traveling to the Gaza strip today, but was initially denied permission to enter, as reported by the independent Israeli news blog HA-Makom.

Following the blog’s report, which was picked up by other Israeli news outlets and made waves on social media, the artist and his crew were finally granted entry.

Ai had arranged a three-day stay in the Gaza Strip, and coordinated the trip with the Israeli production company Highlight, which is filming on location with the politically engaged artist.

As Israel marks its Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism tomorrow, May 11, immediately followed by Independence Day on May 12, the crossing will be shut off for three full days starting tonight due to heightened security procedures. Ai and his film crew were planning on staying in Gaza until the border reopens.

The IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (CoGAT), who is responsible for issuing entry permits to Gaza, is obligated to grant entry into Gaza only for the members of international press who hold state-issued press IDs. Ai and his team are not considered journalists.

In addition, the daily paper Haaretz reports that according to CoGAT, Ai and the film crew did not apply for their permissions in due course, and that a speedy procedure was underway.

A CoGAT’s spokesperson responded to Ha-Makom‘s report, saying “On May 3rd, we received said request to enter Gaza, just several days prior to the planned arrival. As in the case of every visit to Gaza, the request has to undergo inspection by security officials, and due to the short notice, we were unable to do so. We have now sent an urgent request to the Israeli Security Agency, but the request will not be taken care of before Independence Day, so the team will have to stay in Israel for a few more days. We can’t promise their entry to Gaza, but we promise to take care of the request.”

However, rather than a few days, permission was granted in a matter of hours, on Monday evening. Ai and the film crew will be heading to the Gaza Strip today.

Ai has started the visit with interviews in Israel, and met with Member of the Knesset Ayman Odeh, of the Joint List, and Hagai El-ad, executive director of B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, to talk about the state of both the Palestinian refugees as well as refugees worldwide. Following the interviews, he headed to the West Bank, and filmed at refugee camps around Bethlehem.

Since relocating to Berlin last year, around the same time that the refugee crisis has reached devastating proportions, Ai has made countless trips to refugee camps in Greece and Macedonia, and has even opened a studio on the island of Lesbos, an entry point to Europe for refugees making the perilous journey from Turkey to Greece.

While attempting to leverage his celebrity to highlight the plight of refugees, Ai has also staged certain gestures that came under fire for being too crass, like creating a photograph of himself lying on a beach, recalling a shocking photo of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi.

He’s also hung life vests on the façade of a Berlin concert hall during the city’s film festival, and then invited guests at a gala there, including Hollywood actress Charlize Theron, to pose wearing emergency thermal blankets.

Based on first-hand accounts rather than attention-grabbing aesthetics, the documentary he is currently filming could very well be a thoughtful and candid—not to mention historically valuable—report on the Middle East refugee crisis.

“I did hundreds of interviews,” Ai recently told Reuters in Bern, Switzerland, where he was speaking to reporters at the opening of “Chinese Whispers,” an exhibition of contemporary Chinese artists from the collection of Uli Sigg at the Paul Klee Center.

He plans to release the film in 2017.

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