Ai Weiwei’s contribution to Berlin movie scrapped amid censorship fears

“It was infuriating to find our involvement had been erased,” Ai says

Ai Weiwei © Alfred Weidinger

Ai Weiwei © Alfred Weidinger

A contribution by the Chinese artist, film-maker and activist Ai Weiwei to a film called Berlin, I Love You, was cut by the producers on concern it could block the movie from getting distribution in China and create difficulties for them with the Chinese authorities.

The film is part of a series known as Cities of Love created by Emmanuel Benbihy of Ever So Close Inc. The Berlin movie features 11 directors and stars such as Keira Knightley and Helen Mirren. Ai directed his contribution, which focussed on his relationship with his son, via Facetime while in detention in China in 2015. It was included in the marketing teaser but did not make it into the finished film.

“It was infuriating to find our involvement had been erased,” Ai said in a statement on Deutsche Welle television. “The reason we were given for the episode’s removal was that my political status had made it difficult for the production team to secure further funding.”

Ai said another reason was that the organisers of the Berlin Film Festival told the producers of Berlin, I Love You that the artist’s contribution would make it impossible to screen the film at this year’s edition of the festival, which ended on 17 February. The Berlin Film Festival’s press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Ai’s statement. The film was not selected for the festival.

Suspicions of Chinese censorship had already cast a shadow over this year’s Berlin Film Festival, when “One Second,” a drama set during the Cultural Revolution by the veteran director Zhang Yimou, was removed from the competition days before its premiere, ostensibly for “technical reasons.” Among the festival sponsors is the German carmaker Audi, which produces hundreds of thousands of cars in China for the domestic market.

Claus Clausen of Munich-based Wow Films, one of the producers of Berlin, I Love You, says the producers made the decision to drop Ai’s contribution from the finished product because of pressure from distributors that threatened the entire film. Ai’s contribution, which reflected Berlin’s political division through the separation of father and son, was “very special,” Clausen says.

“We would not have gotten distribution in China and some other territories,” he says. “We got so much pressure. I am still not sure if this was Chinese political influence or just fear of it."

“We wanted to make sure that the other contributors had a chance to show their movies,” Clausen adds. “We had a responsibility to the actors. I couldn’t sleep for a very long time. I could still cry. I kept trying until the last moment. I tried my best, and we failed.”

The fact that the next film in the Cities of Love series centres on Shanghai also played a role in the producers’ decision to scrap his contribution to Berlin, I Love You, according to Ai. Clausen, who is not working on any more films in the series, declined to comment on that.

“The situation has got worse,” Ai says. “China has become much more powerful and globally plays a major role in politics and economics. At the same time, China starts promoting its soft power.” The effect is clearly being felt in the entertainment industry, he adds.

“If Zhang Yimou or I can face this dramatic situation, you have to think about the young people” in China, he says.