The executive producer of anthology film “Berlin, I Love You” is engaged in a war of words with Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, whose contribution to the movie was left on the cutting-room floor.
Ai contends that the segment he shot for “Berlin, I Love You” was axed by the producers for political reasons, out of fear of upsetting Chinese officials. But Emmanuel Benbihy, the film’s Shanghai-based executive producer, says that Ai’s segment did not meet the requirements for inclusion and that the award-winning artist is obsessed with criticizing China.
“Berlin, I Love You,” whose short takes feature such stars as Helen Mirren and Keira Knightley, was submitted to the Berlin Film Festival but failed to land a slot, even out of competition or in one of the fest’s sidebars. Instead, it began its commercial career with a Feb. 8 theatrical release, handled by Saban Films, in the U.S.
To Ai’s surprise, the finished picture left out the segment he shot in 2015, long before contributions from Peter Chelsom, Til Schweiger and nine others went before the cameras. Ai directed his piece remotely, issuing instructions by video-call, while under house arrest in China, to Claus Clausen, the Germany-based producer of the film, who co-directed. (Ai later relocated permanently to Berlin.) The segment focuses on a boy, played by Ai’s son, who discovers a new city and uses unreliable technology to keep in touch with his distant father.
Clausen cited pressure from distributors uncomfortable with Ai’s inclusion as the reason for the segment’s omission. “It was because some of the distributors told us, ‘No,’” Clausen said Wednesday, declining to name the companies.
The decision to pull Ai’s segment was made in order “to show the movie,” Clausen added. “That’s what made my heart really bleed. I had an obligation to the other directors and to the other actors. We would have had problems getting the movie out there worldwide….It was a no-win situation for me no matter which way we went. I fought for it till the last moment.”
But executive producer Benbihy, the guardian of the “Cities of Love” franchise, insists there is a simpler explanation: creative differences.
“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.”
The rules of the “Cities of Love” franchise give directors final cut of their own segment, but the final say over the film’s lineup rests with the producers.
Benbihy confirmed that the decision to leave out Ai’s offering was made only recently – years after Ai submitted his work. “The final ensemble is a collective decision that takes a lot of time, sometimes under the pressure of the distributors, as it happened for ‘New York, I Love You,'” Benbihy said. “This is not a decision that is taken lightly, so it takes time.”
In a stream of criticism on Twitter, Ai makes clear his belief that political censorship, or self-censorship, was at work. “Chinese movie censorship: Ai Weiwei, Zhang Yimou withdrawals suggest it reaches beyond borders,” he said in one tweet, referring to the last-minute cancellation of the premiere of Zhang’s “One Second” at the Berlinale.
“If someone like Zhang Yimou is facing this problem, if someone like me faces this kind of dramatic situation. Think about the young artist…[China] would lose a whole generation’s imagination, courage, and their passion for art,” Ai said in another tweet.
He retweeted other commentators’ suggestions that his omission from “Berlin, I Love You” was motivated by Benbihy’s desire to remain in the Chinese government’s good graces and to make a “Cities of Love” installment about Shanghai. According to IMDb, Benbihy previously tried to launch “Shanghai, I Love You” as far back as 2007, but the project has largely lain dormant since 2009.
Benbihy called those accusations “ridiculous,” although he acknowledged plans to revive plans for “Shanghai, I Love You” this year. “Nothing [is] happening on the Shanghai movie yet,” he said. “We are working on the strategy and the budget. Not on the financing.”
Benbihy blamed Ai for “trying to politicize” his exclusion from the Berlin film and for bad-mouthing China. “He seems to be stuck in that prolific journalistic and public narrative that sustains fears and clichés about China,” Benbihy said. “But there’s no love here, just a man with a single agenda: himself, at the expense of everyone and everything else.”