Just following news that a film by Zhang Yimou about the Cultural Revolution was excluded from the Berlin Film Festival, possibly at the behest of Chinese censors, another movie, “Berlin, I Love You,” has also been edited to omit the participation of artist and activist Ai Weiwei. Amy Qin reports for The New York Times:
But in the final version of the film, which was released in the United States this month, Mr. Ai’s contribution was nowhere to be found. Mr. Ai said the producers told him they had decided to cut his segment after investors, distributors and other partners raised concerns about the artist’s political sensitivity in China.
“When I found out, I was very angry,” Mr. Ai said. “It was frustrating to see Western creators and institutions collaborating with Chinese censorship in such an obvious way.”
Starring Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren and Luke Wilson, “Berlin, I Love You” is part of the Cities of Love franchise, in which international directors are invited to make short, intersecting vignettes that take place in a particular city.
Claus Clausen and Edda Reiser, two of the film’s producers, confirmed Mr. Ai’s account, adding that they had fought to keep his segment in the film but ultimately felt they had no choice but to remove it.
[…] Mr. Ai said producers had submitted “Berlin, I Love You” to the Berlin Film Festival but it had been rejected, and he speculated that it was because of his involvement. A statement from the festival said it could not discuss films that were not in the program, but that “the involvement of Ai Weiwei would never be a criteria for choosing or not choosing a film.” [Source]
— DW News (@dwnews) February 17, 2019
Scott Roxborough of The Hollywood Reporter has more on the film and Ai’s contribution to it:
The romantic drama — featuring 10 short films from 10 different directors all set in the German capital and centered on the subject of love — was released Feb. 8 in the U.S. by Saban Films. Berlin, I Love You is the latest installment in the City of Love series created by Emmanuel Benbihy, which also features Paris, je t’aime; New York, I Love You; Rio, I Love You; and Tbilisi, I Love You.
Fernando Eimbcke, Dennis Gansel, Peter Chelsom and Massy Tadjedin are among the directors that shot segments for Berlin, I Love You, which features Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Mickey Rourke, Diego Luna, Emily Beecham and Luke Wilson among its ensemble cast.
In 2015, Ai Weiwei directed a segment for Berlin, I Love You. As he was at the time still prevented from traveling outside of China because of his activism, the artist directed the movie by video link. The segment focused on the artist’s relationship with his son, Ai Lao, then 6 years old and living with his mother in Berlin. German star Til Schweiger (Inglourious Basterds) also had a small role in the film. Shortly after the film was shot, Ai Weiwei was allowed to leave China and moved to Berlin. [Source]
Melissa Chan first reported the editing on Deutsche Welle, where she interviewed Ai:
Chan also reported on the story and the apparent censorship of Zhang Yimou’s movie for the Los Angeles Times:
Ai’s and Zhang’s cases are just the latest troubling examples of China’s influence beyond its borders, showing how Beijing can flex its muscle over the arts, and on events and projects taking place thousands of miles away.
[…] The Los Angeles Times viewed an email that appeared to support Ai’s story that at least some involved in “Berlin, I Love You” believed the festival was avoiding projects associated with Ai.
“Chinese censorship has become institutionalized globally,” Ai said, “with Western partners increasingly willing to engage in this war against freedom of expression.”
Producers Clausen and Reiser described feeling embattled, with pressure from “many, many sides” to cut Ai’s portion or risk losing distributors and support, but they felt they had an obligation to the other directors and actors to move forward with a release.
“We underestimated the power of China,” Reiser said. “We were disappointed by the lack of support in the free world.” [Source]
"Censorship in China is a very inexact science. There are rules laid down but how the rules are applied are often very arbitrary. Directors and producers struggle with this."
— Melissa Chan (@melissakchan) February 19, 2019
Ai Weiwei moved to Berlin in 2015 after his passport was returned to him following an effective four-year travel ban. In 2011, he had been detained for 81 days for tax evasion in what was widely considered to be a political case against him following his activism on behalf of victims of the 2008 earthquake in Wenchuan, Sichuan. Last year, authorities demolished his art studio in Beijing.