Berlin International Film Festival 2017: Theatre of protest takes centrestage
Film festivals are about cinema, business, acclaim, glamour and premieres. Usually. But living as we are in times of Trump, Brexit and the rise of the alt-right, desperate times call for the theatre of protest to take centre stage.
The 67th Berlin International Film Festival kicked off eight days ago. It was attended by more than 20,000 professional visitors from 122 countries which included more than 3,800 journalists.
I had the privilege of attending it. I say privilege, not just because of the amazing films I got to watch and the awesome people I got to meet. It was a privilege because the Berlinale this year has set a standard for how film festivals can actively enable the widespread protests that are rippling through the world.
And thankfully, they are not subtle about it because the festival’s opening ceremony itself was an exercise in showing the middle finger to global divisive forces. At the red carpet, Green Party politician and Bundestag vice president Claudia Roth threw some sly shade at Trump’s misspelt tweets by wearing a dress with the word “Unpresidented” written in bold.
“After the fall of the Berlin Wall, we said never again would walls divide people. We mean that now more than ever,” said Berlin mayor Michael Muller at the ceremony. Jury member Maggie Gyllenhaal spoke up for Americans when she said, “I want people around the world to know that there are many, many people in my country that are ready to resist.” Also in attendance at the ceremony was celebrated Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. Last year Weiwei attached 14,000 life jackets used by refugees to Berlin’s Konzerthaus concert hall to create a provocative installation that highlighted their plight.
It didn’t stop there. The festival’s selection of films features many that deal squarely with the issue of refugees and immigration. The opening film Django by Etienne Comar tells the true story of jazz great Django Reinhardt who as a gypsy in Germany, had to deal with the Nazi persecution. Other titles in the lineup include Aki Kaurasmaki’s The Other Side of Hope which centres on a Syrian refugee.
Indian films are not far behind either. Haobum Paban Kumar’s Lady of the Lake and Amit Masurkar’s Newton both present a critical view of government misrule in Manipur and Chhatisgarh respectively. And even films that did not deal with the subject of politics, immigration and refugees head on, made their contribution to the sentiment of protest. At the press conference for his film The Dinner, actor Richard Gere railed against US President Donald Trump for spreading fear and said what he had done was, “conflating two words: refugee and terrorist. The number of hate crimes in the US went up enormously when Donald Trump began running for President. There are leaders who spread fear. It’s happening here, too.”
The atmosphere of #Resist tempered even the bustling European Film Market at the Martin-Gropius-Bau which welcomes over 9,230 producers, buyers, sales agents, distributors, exhibitors and financiers. Amidst talk of rights, territories and million dollar deals, a group of protestors walked around peacefully with signs that denounced censorship and government interference in Turkey.
What is even more noteworthy about the role that Berlinale plays in providing a platform for dissent is that there is no one person/country/party that it is directed at.
So, the Romanian delegation at the 67th edition of Berlinale film competition staged a protest on the red carpet in Berlin, in support of the thousands of Romanian that were out on the streets, calling for the government to resign. The group of filmmakers included producer Ada Solomon, director Tudor Giurgiu, and actress Crina Semciuc. They raised signs that read: Romanian Cinema #resist.
Away from the red carpet, Agnieszka Holland, Volker Schlöndorff, the European Film Academy, and Amnesty International staged a protest against the incarceration of the Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov at the screening of The Trial: The State of Russia Versus Oleg Sentsov by Askold Kurov. Six hundred and fifty members in the audience held up signs demanding the release of the director.
As I write this, Sanjay Leela Bhansali is being hounded to halt the shooting of his opus Padmavati. Director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan who made India proud by making the first film ever to win the Hivos Tiger award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), has received death threats because his film is titled Sexy Durga. Now more than ever, cinema needs the freedom of expression to tell stories. I came away from the Berlinale with the renewed feeling that film festivals matter. Even more so now.