On February 8, the film Berlin, I Love You made its world premiere, as the newest installment of the Cities of Love franchise, which collects short segments from individual filmmakers into a single work. A week later, Ai Weiwei—the artist, documentary filmmaker, human-rights activist, and one of the thorniest thorns in China’s side—announced on his Instagram account that he had just learned that his own contribution to the project had been cut before its theatrical release.
In a statement titled “A New State of Mind” on his instagram account, Ai wrote that he had been asked to contribute a piece to the film in 2015 and had done so. “It was infuriating to find our involvement had been erased, especially since we had not received any prior notice from the production team,” he wrote.
The reason he was given for the removal, he said, was that his “political status had made it difficult for the production team to secure further funding.”
In the context of the China news cycle, which is currently dominated by Huawei, the incarceration of one million ethnic Uyghurs in reeducation camps in Xinjiang, and the trade war, a story about Ai Weiwei being censored was affirming in its familiarity. Ai clashing with the Chinese government wasn’t news, but a restatement of a fact of life in the 21st century.
In less than two decades, the turn-of-the-century Western prediction that economic growth and globalization would necessarily bring liberalization to China has stalled out and has now begun running in reverse. Ai’s chosen themes, or provocations, have made his life and career into a frontier on which cosmopolitan ideals are visibly tested against the realities of power and capital.
As he wrote in his statement:
Cultural institutions, including major film festivals and museums, often rely on the sponsorship of corporate partners. In the past few years, a phenomenon has afflicted cultural entities in the West, both public and private. In Germany, exhibitions associated with me have seen withdrawal of financial support from corporate partners, including multinational banks and automotive conglomerates with deeply rooted business interests in China.
Having openly criticized China and been punished for it, Ai was acutely aware of the liabilities he carried by participating in projects. With regard to Berlin, I Love You, Ai noted that his involvement had initially been used as advertisement for the project, only for his work to be left out of the final product because it was seen as a financial liability.
Two of the film’s producers, Claus Clausen and Edda Reiser, told the Los Angeles Times that the pressure to exclude Ai’s segment came from “many, many sides”:
“We underestimated the power of China,” Reiser said. “We were disappointed by the lack of support in the free world.”
Interviewed by The Art Newspaper, Clausen provided more context:
“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.”
In Clausen’s telling, it came down to the wire, an impossible choice between Ai’s segment, which Clausen co-directed, or the film itself. But though Ai only found out this month that his segment had been cut, the producers had been omitting his participation in the project as far back as September 2017.
In announcements made during the Toronto International Film Festival, which touted the casting of A-list stars including Helen Mirren and Keira Knightley, Ai’s name was nowhere to be found. Ai was again missing from reports from May 2018, when the film’s North American rights sold to Saban Films, after it was shown to buyers during that year’s Berlin International Film Festival. A version of the trailer that was first published in July 2018 didn’t mention Ai at all. When the film was finally released on February 8, any participation by Ai had long been abandoned.
Emmanuel Benbihy, the creator of Cities of Love and executive producer of the film franchise gave Variety an account that contradicted Clausen and Reiser’s:
“The assignment that is given to each director is to tell an encounter of love taking place today in a specific neighborhood of a city (Berlin here). It’s a work to spread love ‘in’ and ‘for’ Berlin, and a global social enterprise based on doing good for cities and for urban citizens,” Benbihy told Variety. “Ai Weiwei’s segment did not comply with that assignment at all.”
Benbihy went on: “[Ai] seems to be stuck in that prolific journalistic and public narrative that sustains fears and clichés about China. But there’s no love here, just a man with a single agenda: himself, at the expense of everyone and everything else.”
Just what was Ai Weiwei’s segment that had failed to spread love for Berlin? Turned out it was a melancholic story about a young boy, played by Ai’s son, Ai Lao, who was learning to navigate life in Berlin away from his father. Ai wrote the screenplay with his partner, Wang Fen, Ai Lao’s mother. They drew inspiration from their own predicament at the time, with Ai Weiwei living in Beijing under “soft detention” by the Chinese government—under constant surveillance, after having been imprisoned in hard detention for 81 days—while Wang and Ai Lao had fled to the safety of Berlin. It is difficult to imagine a more ardent declaration of love for a city than entrusting one’s family to it, to be comforted and cared for by strangers.
And with that simple question, Benbihy’s pretension to a private narrative devoid of “fears and clichés about China” unravels. A curious person might want to know why Ai was under soft detention. Because he had begun a citizen’s investigative effort to document the names, dates of birth, and schools of children who died in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. How many kids died? The official count is 5,335, but the actual figure could be higher. How did they die? Corrupt officials had siphoned money away from school construction funds, which led to poorly built schoolhouses that collapsed during the earthquake while nearby buildings remained intact. Why was this tolerated? Has anything changed?
Ai can only be accused of having a “single agenda” inasmuch as these parochial questions of life under unaccountable authority have branched out to implicate the entire world in which he lives and works. The globalized funding structure for cultural production—a “joint venture between dictatorial and democratic societies,” as Ai put it—has led to an era in which a French filmmaker has learned to speak the stock language of Chinese officials, accusing a dissident of self-aggrandizement and journalists of failing to tell the truth about the regime.
The web of interests, from talent agencies to distributors to film financing firms to production companies, work to shield each other from liability, rather than to hold anyone accountable for moral failures. China did not invent this system, but it has learned to operate within it, until the rest of the world sees what China wants it to see.