With “The Kindness of Strangers,” which opens the Berlin Film Festival on Thursday evening, Danish writer-director Lone Scherfig said she felt an urgent need to respond to the current political and social turmoil around the globe in a positive way.
“I thought it would make sense…to make a film that had light and hopefully leaves the audience with a sense of not just hope, but also community,” she said.
Scherfig spoke at a press conference Thursday afternoon alongside producer Malene Blenkov and members of the cast, including Zoe Kazan, Andrea Riseborough, and Bill Nighy. The Berlinale veteran, who won the Silver Bear in 2001 for “Italian for Beginners,” discussed how “The Kindness of Strangers” allowed her to address the darkening political climate without being an overtly political film.
The movie revolves around a cast of down-and-out characters whose paths cross at a restaurant owned by the grandson of Russian immigrants (Nighy). Among them are Clara (Kazan), a mother fleeing an abusive husband with her two sons; Alice (Riseborough), an ER nurse who leads an eclectic therapy group; Marc (Tahar Rahim), an ex-con-turned-manager of the restaurant; and Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones), a young man in desperate need of a job.
“The characters themselves are not political, and they never express any political opinions,” said Scherfig. “They are not political creatures, but the film and the backdrop – the juxtaposition of very luxurious New York and the soup kitchens – is a way to address big political issues in an intimate way.”
Scherfig last appeared in Berlin with “An Education,” which screened at the 2009 Berlinale before going on to receive three Academy Award nominations, including best actress for star Carey Mulligan.
Returning to Berlin for the first time since the rise of the #MeToo movement, Scherfig is one of seven female directors with films in competition. The six-member jury is led by actress Juliette Binoche.
The director channeled the spirit of the time in her description of Kazan’s Clara, a mother who’s forced to scrap for her family’s survival on the streets of New York. Clara, Scherfig said, is “a woman who is stronger than she thinks.”
Cast members echoed the director’s message, with Nighy describing “Strangers” as a movie that’s “perfectly placed for this time.”
“Any film currently that emphasizes those things which unite us rather than those things that divide us…is not only desirable, it’s essential,” he said. “[Actors] look for opportunities to do stuff that will…tip the balance in a good direction. And this is absolutely an opportunity to do that.”
Riseborough commented on the relentless churn of negative news stories, saying it was important “to re-contextualize what’s really going on in the world to remind ourselves that actually there’s so much kindness, so much purity.”
The actress pointed to Time’s Up as an example of organizations that are fighting daily to improve people’s lives. “To focus on that infrastructure that’s already in place and then to invest in it, and celebrate it, I think is really important at this time,” she said.