Fest transfixed by the East-West cultural divide

Two years ago, Ruhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul were wearing orange suits as the “guests” of the U.S. Marine Corps at Camp Delta, Guantanamo Bay. Last week they walked Berlin’s red carpet to attend the world premiere of “The Road to Guantanamo,” Michael Winterbottom’s drama-doc about their extraordinary odyssey.

The moment summed up the essence of the 56th Berlinale. The fest’s dedication to grappling with serious subjects is matched only by its determination to have a seriously good time.

“Nowhere else can you bring three tortured persons on the red carpet and say, ‘Let’s have fun,’ ” Berlinale topper Dieter Kosslick says. “Anywhere else, I’d be locked up.”

While Americans are debating the politics of such Oscar-nominated films as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Good Night, and Good Luck,” European cinema is concentrating on topics that are arguably even more incendiary: cultural divisions, social inequalities and the long-term consequences of U.S. foreign policy.

The Berlin Film Festival (Feb. 9-19) was the perfect cauldron to have such themes bubble up.

It’s debatable whether the films on display at this year’s fest will have much impact at the global box office. But they reflect a changing world that no one, from Hollywood to Tehran, can afford to ignore.

To be sure, other topics dotted the films here — issues of sexual identity cropped up in Lukas Moodyson’s “Container” and a Sapphic love affair in a Romanian college in “Love Sick” — but most auds here just shrug that stuff off. Politics is what gets them worked up.

Nearly every wannabe producer at Berlin seemed to have a film project that deals with the cultural divide between Europeans and their immigrant communities.

The projects reflect the biggest single issue facing countries across the Continent: how to successfully relate to these new citizens, by opening up avenues for integration while at the same time respecting their very different traditions and values.

It’s no easy task, as the ongoing hoopla over Danish cartoons satirizing the prophet Mohammed makes clear. From the suburbs of Copenhagen to the bazaars of Karachi, Muslims are so outraged they’re burning down embassies and pitching out Pepsis.

If you don’t think images make an impact, just turn on a TV set in Europe. Other than the Olympics, that’s all anyone’s talking about.

And the recent riots in Paris suburbs may have surprised Americans, but most European countries understood the source of such tension.

Twenty-five years ago, the Berlinale was a beacon for oppressed East European filmmakers who hailed the event as a mecca for freedom of speech.

That was in the days of Iron Curtain auteurs like Andrzej Wajda, who came to town to collect a Golden Bear for his oeuvre. Nowadays, cross-cultural currents are even more complex: Communism seems like a quaint construct next to the Copenhagen quagmire.

Last week, at least eight films in various fest sections touched on the theme of ethnic disaffection. There will probably be many more.

Given the seriousness of this fest, almost every filmmaker here, whatever his movie was about, was asked by the press to comment on “the Danish question.”

Many of these creative types were earnestly supportive of the irate Muslim population around the world. Even more surprising, few managed to mumble anything in defense of freedom of speech.

Take the remarks of Annette Oleson, a Danish director whose Panorama section film “1:1″ deals with the ethnic tensions in a poor neighborhood of the Danish capital. Pic stars a 17-year-old Palestinian immigrant who had never acted before.

Her comments, in functional but not particularly nuanced English, suggested that the Danish paper was wrong to publish such material and should have been “more sensitive.” The actor, too, who appeared onstage to have conjured up his outrage out of nowhere, also said he was offended.

And thus it went throughout scattered press events and latenight conversations. I must have missed whoever might have hazarded that there was at least as much cause to demonstrate against beheadings (and their televised images) as there was to protest the lampooning of sacred icons.

Even the accomplished and powerful “Road to Guantanamo” — which gave a much-needed shot of adrenalin to the fest competition — predictably depicted the Pakistani populace as gentle souls, and the entire U.S. military as dunderheads, if not outright thugs.

Director Michael Winterbottom may very well be right when it comes to those in charge of the prison at Guantanamo, but somehow the faces of all-smiling Pakistanis/Afghanis is at odds with the images we’ve been seeing on TV for the last two weeks.

Though Berlin’s fest selection had much to admire, humor onscreen — as well as among all who take offense — was in short supply.

One might argue that what the world needs now — take note young filmmakers — is someone to take their cue from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” and lighten up a little.

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