China Is Now Censoring What Movies Come Out in Other Countries, Too

Date: Feb 19, 2019
By: Joshua Keating

Side-by-side photos of Ai Weiwei and the poster for Berlin, I Love You.
Ai Weiwei; Berlin, I Love You promotional poster
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for PEN America.

Artists working under authoritarian governments often face a heart-wrenching choice between three not-so-appealing options: Cooperate with the censors, defy them, or flee to a country with a more permissive political climate. For Chinese filmmakers, the third may no longer be an option: The Communist Party’s censorship extends beyond the country’s borders.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that a segment from the anthology film Berlin, I Love You directed by the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, while he was under house arrest in Beijing, was cut from the film’s final version released this month due to concerns about offending the Chinese government. The film, part of the Cities of Love series in which multiple directors are commissioned to create shorts set in a particular city, features Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Mickey Rourke, and Diego Luna in other segments. Ai’s short, which was directed remotely from China in 2015 and featured his 5-year-old son, who lived in Germany, was, he claims, not overtly political. (Ai has since relocated to Germany himself.) The next installment of Cities of Love is planned for Shanghai, which may have made investors particularly skittish.

Ai has had success as a filmmaker outside China: His documentary Human Flow, which I interviewed him about in 2017, was distributed globally. But he’s somewhat radioactive for producers and distributors who want to stay in the good graces of the Chinese authorities.

This report came a few days after news that the new film by Chinese director Zhang Yimou had been withdrawn from competition in the Berlin Film Festival for “technical reasons,” which in China is frequently a euphemism for censorship. Zhang, the best known of the “Fifth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers who emerged in the 1980s, struggled with censorship early in his career but has long been considered an officially approved establishment figure in China. Internationally, he’s best known for martial arts epics like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, as well as directing the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics (in a stadium designed by Ai Weiwei). The new film, One Second, takes place during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, a politically sensitive period, but it’s odd that censors waited so long to step in. Under new regulations, Chinese films need to obtain a “travel permit” to be shown internationally, in addition to passing through normal domestic censorship. One Second was one of two Chinese films withdrawn from Berlin this year for censorship reasons.    [FULL  STORY]