At this year’s Berlin Film Festival, politics and protests, rather than cinema and celebrities, are the focus.
The clamor of activists, whether protesting environmentalists, demonstrating for women’s rights in Iran, or showing solidarity with the warring people of Ukraine, generated media coverage that often overrode what was happening on screen.
The opening night red carpet is on Thursday, so at least three shows. Holy spider star Zahra Amir Ebrahimi together with two German-Iranian actresses, The empress stars Melika Forutan and Jasmine Tabatabai (Bandits, Baader Meinhof complex), joined activists to unfurl a banner reading “Women, Life, Freedom,” the slogan of the anti-government protests for women’s rights that have rocked Iran since last September. Before the ceremony, demonstrators representing concession workers and managers at Berlin cinemas held placards calling for fairer pay. And members of the environmental activist group Last Generation stuck to the ground near the red carpet, trying to draw attention to the impending climate disaster.
Inside is the opening night gala, presumably a celebration of the world premiere of Rebecca Miller’s film She came to me starring Anne Hathaway, Marisa Tomei and Peter Dinklage, instead turned into a celebration of the courage of the people of Ukraine and a condemnation of Russia’s aggressive war against them. The main event was a live video address by the President of Ukraine, Vladimir Zelensky, who directly stated that art and cinema cannot be outside of politics. “Culture chooses a side when it decides to oppose evil,” said Zelensky, “and takes a side when it is silent and actually helps evil.”
Berlin has always been the most political of the big festivals. In 2006, Ruhel Ahmed and Shafiq Rasool, the heroes of the competition film by Michael Winterbottom and Matt Whitecross, arrived at the festival Road to Guantanamo, two British Muslims who were captured by US forces in Afghanistan in 2001 and spent years imprisoned without charge at a notorious US military base. In 2011, members of the jury posed near an empty chair, marking the place of Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who was elected to the jury but was not allowed by Tehran to leave the country.
Filmmakers and activists know that the Berlinale Palast is a welcoming platform for their calls to action and against injustice. Berlinale jury president Kristen Stewart alluded to this at her opening press conference: “Whether you like it or not,” she said, “this festival in particular is historically confrontational and political in a positive way.”
Stewart also took a stand at Berlinale, joining a silent protest in support of protesters in Iran on the red carpet on Saturday. The Women for Freedom to Live demonstration also included Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Siren director Sepideh Farsi, actress and Berlinale jury member Golshifteh Farakhani, and festival directors Karla Chatrian and Mariette Risenbeck.
This year, Berlin really leaned into its brand of “political festival.” In addition to public declarations of support for various causes – “the festival remains crystal clear as a sign of solidarity with the people of Ukraine [and] with the protest movement in Iran,” the presenters noted on the opening night, “it is aimed at specific actions. After banning all exhibitors from Russia or Iran with direct ties to the regimes in their respective regimes, Berlin’s European Film Market handed over control of Iran’s EFM stand to the newly formed Iranian Independent Film Association, saying that they, and not any government organizations, should be true representatives of Iranian cinema.
On Friday, the festival and EFM supported a group of filmmakers exiled from the dictatorial regime of Belarus in establishing the first independent Belarusian film academy, receiving immediate support and pledges of funding from the European Film Academy and the national film promotion body German Films.
Berlin’s status as the world’s most political festival lends added weight to comments made by Hong Kong filmmaker and Berlinale jury member Johnny To at the jury’s press conference on Thursday.
When asked to share his views on why cinema remains important in today’s world, Toh, considered one of Hong Kong’s greatest filmmakers, said: “For me, cinema has always been the vanguard. When a totalitarian government arises, when people lose their freedom, cinema is the first to take the hit. In most cases, cultural production will be forcibly suspended, as the cinema speaks directly to the viewer. That’s why dictators always target cinema. I think Hong Kong… No, sorry. I think that all countries and peoples fighting for freedom around the world should support cinema. Because the movie speaks for you.”
His remarks did not attract much attention in Berlin, in part because the translator at the event made a Cantonese-to-English translation error that caused most of the audience to miss the importance of his statement. But in Toh’s native Hong Kong, where free speech has been curtailed in recent years and a fleeting pro-democracy movement crushed by Beijing’s decree, they instantly went viral — and have remained a hot topic of discussion on social media ever since.
The new, more serious installment of the Berlinale is, for the most part, going well. Aside from the occasional grumble about the “charity signal,” the Art for Art’s sake crowd was decidedly quiet. Social justice politics have become an integral part of the identity of many in the independent film community, perhaps reflecting the impact on the industry of the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements.
“Storytelling is a powerful tool in the quest for justice, democracy and a just and equal society,” says Mike Downey, president of the European Film Academy and member of the International Coalition of Filmmakers at Risk, a filmmakers’ rights group. The pressure from the international cultural community, he says, “is actually working.” Downey points to recent successes, such as the European film community’s support for Jafar Panahi’s hunger strike, which saw the dissident director released on February 4.
But privately, some in the industry worry that Berlin may be going too far. “I don’t agree with this overt politicization, with the emphasis on the political message rather than the films themselves,” said one veteran salesman, who asked not to be named out of concern that his comments would be misinterpreted. “I also support these causes, but the Berlinale should be a film festival, not a week-long political protest.”
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