Rossellini reads moving letter from jailed Iranian helmer

BERLIN — Despite a festive, upbeat mood that was boosted by the international premiere of “True Grit,” the 61st Berlin Film Festival got off to a sobering start on Thursday as fest topper Dieter Kosslick and jury prexy Isabella Rossellini paid tribute to convicted Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi.

The director, who had been invited to serve on the international jury, was symbolically represented on stage by an empty chair.

“True Grit’s” directors Joel and Ethan Coen, and stars Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld and Josh Brolin were on hand to present their Oscar-nominated hit Western. Keeping with the atmosphere, the opening night’s dress code called for “black tie and cowboy boots.”

They are among a slew of stars due to attend the fest including Liam Neeson, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Colin Firth, William Hurt, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Harry Belafonte, January Jones, Diane Kruger, Zachary Quinto and Vanessa Redgrave.

Yet reminders of Panahi’s fate — first by Kosslick and German culture minister Bernd Neumann, and then by Panahi himself in a moving letter read by Rossellini — overshadowed the evening’s initial lightheartedness.

In December, an Iranian court sentenced Panahi and fellow filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof to six years in prison and banned them from making films for 20 years.

“The reality is they have deprived me of thinking and writing for 20 years, but they can not keep me from dreaming that in 20 years inquisition and intimidation will be replaced by freedom and free thinking,” Panahi wrote.

The visibly moved audience gave the filmmaker a standing ovation.

Describing cinema as a cornerstone of democracy, Neumann drove home the point “that is true for China but especially true for Iran.”

Kosslick and Neumann also remembered producer Bernd Eichinger, who died last month.

The Berlinale is screening Eichinger’s 1996 drama “A Girl Called Rosemary” on Saturday. “It will be a chance to say goodbye to Bernd one last time,” Kosslick said.

Neumann praised Eichinger for his immense contribution to German cinema and his instrumental role in the creation of the German Film Academy. “He will be greatly missed,” he added.

Panahi’s fate as well as the momentous upheaval taking place in Egypt and throughout the Middle East is sure to generate plenty of discussion during the fest, but so will the films and the apparent upbeat mood among arriving industryites.

The slew of deals announced on the eve of the fest may be a sign of things to come and the Berlinale’s 11 days of movies, deal-making, parties and red carpet glamour is likely to further boost the buoyant cheeriness among festgoers.

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