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Meryl Streep on Diversity at Berlin Film Festival: ‘We’re All Africans’

Hot button industry topics of equality and diversity were on the agenda at the opening day, jury press conference of the Berlin Film Festival.

“I have no idea how to run a jury,” said Meryl Streep, this year’s jury president, in response to the inevitable media question about criteria for judging the competition movies. “But in the end I have two votes and (the other jury members) only have one each.”

Berlin has a reputation for being a politically minded festival, and Streep did not shy away from promoting an agenda of equality and inclusion. “(Equality) of genders, races, ethnicities, religion,” she opined. “This jury is also evidence that women are included and can even dominate – that is unusual in bodies that make decisions.”

When asked if she understood films from the Arab world and North Africa, Streep said: “There is a core of humanity that travels right through every culture, and after all we’re all from Africa originally,” adding, “We’re all Africans, we’re all Berliners,” in reference to John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.

“A compassionate heart is important as an actress; it makes me want to watch carefully each person’s work,” Streep said. She combined that with her approach to judging the competition winners. “I don’t think I (particularly) watch acting. I am very susceptible. I get swept away.”

Her “Africans” remark quickly drew the ire of social media, with many readers calling the Oscar-winner racially insensitive.

The Berlin festival, however, said her comments were being misconstrued.

“We don’t consider Meryl Streep’s comments to be in any way insensitive,” a spokesman for the Berlin festival told Variety“As she made it clear throughout the press conference, she is committed to inclusiveness of all ethnicities, religions and genders. She underlined that we are all the same, all equal.”

Later, Sight and Sound editor Nick James, who’s also on the jury, applauded the Berlin festival organizers for including him. “I want to thank the festival for having the chutzpah to put a critic on the jury,” he said. “It used to happen a lot in the 20th century.”

The jury — which also includes German actor Lars Eidinger, French photographer Brigitte Lacombe, British actor Clive Owen, Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher, and Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska — gets to award eight prizes including the Golden Bear for best film and seven Silver Bears in performance and technical categories.

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