At this year’s Berlin Film Festival, politics and protests, not cinema and celebrities, have gotten top billing.
The activist uproar, whether its protesting environmentalists, demonstrations on the rights of women in Iran, or shows of solidarity with the embattled people of Ukraine, has created a media echo that has often overpowered what has been happening on screen.
Thursday’s opening night red carpet so no fewer than three demonstrations. Holy Spider star Zahra Amir Ebrahimi, together with two German-Iranian actress: The Empress star Melika Foroutan and Jasmin Tabatabai (Bandits, The Baader Meinhof Complex) joined activists to unveil a banner reading “Women Life Freedom,” the slogan of the anti-government, pro-women’s rights protests that have rocked Iran since last September. Before the ceremony started, demonstrators representing concession workers and ushers in Berlin’s movie theaters, held up banners to call for fairer wages. And members of environmental activist group Last Generation glued themselves to the ground near the red carpet in attempt to focus attention on the looming climate catastrophe.
Inside, the opening night gala, purportedly a celebration of the world premiere of Rebecca Miller’s 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 war of aggression against them. The main event was a live video address from Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, who stated plainly that art, and cinema, cannot be outside politics. “Culture chooses a side when it decide to speak out against evil,” Zelensky said, “and it takes a side when it remains silent and in fact helps the evil.”
Berlin has always been the most political of the big festivals. In 2006, the festival flew in Rhuhel Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul, the subjects of Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’ competition film Road To Guantanamo, two British Muslims who were captured by American forces in Afghanistan in 2001 and spent years imprisoned, without charge, in the notorious U.S. military base. In 2011l, jury members posed beside an empty chair marking the place of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who was selected for the jury but prevented by Tehran from leaving the country.
Filmmakers and activists know the Berlinale Palast is a welcoming platform for their calls for action and against injustice. Berlinale Jury President Kristen Stewart alluded to this in her opening press conference: “whether you like it or not,” she said, “this festival in particular, historically, is in a positive way confrontational and political.”
Stewart also took a stand herself at the Berlinale, joined the silent protest in support of protestors in Iran on the red carpet on Saturday.
But this year, Berlin has really leaned into that brand. In addition to public declarations of support for various causes —”the festival stands, crystal clear in solidarity with the people in Ukraine [and] with the protest movement in Iran” noted the hosts on opening night — it is throwing its weight behind concrete action. After banning any attendees 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 Filmmakers Association, saying they, not any state-sponsored bodies, should be the true representatives of Iranian cinema.
On Friday, the festival and the EFM backed a group of filmmakers-in-exile from the dictatorial regime of Belarus, to launch of the first independent Belarusian Film Academy, gaining immediate support, and promises of help with funding, from the European Film Academy and national cinema promotion body German Films.
This new earnest partisanship is, for the most part, going over well. Aside from the occasional grumble about “virtue signaling,” the art for art’s sake crowd has been conspicuously quiet. The politics of social justice have become an integral part of the identify of many in the independent film community, perhaps reflecting the impact of the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements on the industry.
“Storytelling is a powerful tool in the quest for justice, democracy and a fair and equitable society,” says Mike Downey, Chairman of the European Film Academy and a member of the International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk, a filmmakers’ advocacy group. The pressure brought to bear by the international cultural community, he says, “actually does work.” Downey points to recent successes like the European film community’s support for Jafar Panahi’s hunger strike, which led to the dissident director being released on Feb. 4.
But, privately, some in the industry are concerned Berlin might be taking things a bit too far.
“I don’t agree with this overt politicization, with putting the focus on the political message and not the films themselves,” said one veteran sales agent, who asked not be named out of concern his comments would be mis-interpreted. “I support these causes too, but the Berlinale should be a film festival, not a week-long political protest.”
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