Film festival sharpens political edge

The Berlinale has always honed a political edge, but this year the focus has been crystallized by the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi.

By holding a number of events in support of Panahi, the festival has taken on an activist role.

Political and cross-cultural social themes are evident in this year’s crop of films, some of which offer explorations of foreign lands and societies by European and American filmmakers, such as Joshua Marston’s “The Forgiveness of Blood,” a look at blood feuds in Albania, and German helmer Ulrich Koehler’s “Sleeping Sickness,” about the cultural challenges facing aid workers in Africa. The financial crisis is highlighted in J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call,” starring Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons, while in the Panorama sidebar, Lee Tamahori’s “The Devil’s Double,” starring Dominic Cooper, centers on a man forced to become a double for Saddam Hussein’s sadistic son Uday.

For Berlinale topper Dieter Kosslick, it’s an issue that demands action. “We take a clear stand if human rights are violated,” he says.

An Iranian court found Panahi guilty in December of “propaganda against the system” and sentenced him, along with fellow filmmaker and collaborator Mohammad Rasoulof, to six years in prison. He was also banned from making films, traveling abroad or giving interviews for 20 years.

Kosslick, who invited Panahi to Berlin as a member on this year’s competition jury, has expressed shock “that a renowned director is punished for his artistic work” and says the fest will “use every opportunity to protest against this drastic verdict.”

The Berlinale will show several of Panahi’s films across all the main sections, beginning with “Offside,” which unspools Feb. 11 — the anniversary of Iran’s Islamic revolution. The film, about a group of soccer-loving girls who disguise themselves as boys in order to watch a game, won the Silver Bear in Berlin in 2006. In addition, the fest will also have a panel discussion with Iranian filmmakers and artists on censorship and restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression in Iran.

Reacting to possible political backlash in Iran over the loud protests from the international film community, Kosslick adds, “As a festival we have a responsibility not to endanger our guests. However, this does not mean that we have to put on a muzzle. We’ll continue to show and promote Iranian filmmakers in the future. Iranian artists shouldn’t also be disadvantaged by us. The Berlinale Bear loves Iranian cinema.”

Indeed, screening in competition this year will be “Nader and Simin, a Separation,” by Iranian helmer Asghar Farhadi, who also won a Silver Bear for “About Elly” in 2009.

Kosslick says such political protest and debate have a place at festivals, especially at the Berlinale.

“Past years have shown that festivals are a platform for political protest. In 2003, the imminent Iraq war dominated the political events of the day. Catchphrases like the ‘axis of evil’ and ‘old Europe’ were in everybody’s lips in those days. Prominent U.S. guests in particular used the Berlinale in order to publicly criticize American politics,” he says.

“Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, Spike Jonze and Oliver Stone had clear and sharp words. And activists set up a speakers’ corner in the foyer of one of the Berlinale cinemas where people could express their opinions about the Iraq crisis on-camera,” Kosslick adds.

Looking back at the Berlinale’s 60-year history, Kosslick points out that the fest’s strong political streak has been there since the very beginning.

“A film festival, initiated by the Western Allies, was to set a political sign in postwar Berlin, and the Berlinale was supposed to be a showcase of the free world in a city that was divided into sectors,” Kosslick notes. “During the Cold War, Berlin was a political hotbed. Naturally, (festival) films have always dealt with this subject and reflected that political dimension.”

At the same time, Kosslick stresses that the Berlinale has never rejected a movie on the grounds that it was not political enough.

“The films have to be convincing in terms of content or form, or, even better, when both elements come together. And there are many more criteria that influence the selection. Just to be political is not enough,” he says.

“We program films that are of artistic and therefore social relevance to us. Artists deal with the world and the existential circumstances in which we live. ‘The personal is political and the political is personal,’ goes the old activist slogan, which had its origin in the feminist movement; it also holds true for the arts.”

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