Emotional Plea from Iranian Director Berlinale Opens with Strong Political Message

The 2011 Berlin International Film Festival opened on Thursday evening with a strong message of support for the Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who is facing six years in prison in his native country. Jury head Isabella Rossellini read out an open letter from the filmmaker in which he is openly critical of the Tehran regime.

dpa

As a film festival originally set up to be a showcase of the free world in the capitalist island of West Berlin, the Berlinale has always had a strong political streak. During the Cold War era, the choice of films caused disputes with Warsaw Pact countries on more than one occasion. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the festival has regularly featured films by directors working under oppressive regimes and movies with a strong political message.

But seldom has the Berlinale opened on such a politicized note. On Thursday evening, the Iranian director Jafar Panahi was the focus of the festival's opening gala, traditionally a star-studded spectacle. The festival's organizers appointed Panahi, who was recently sentenced to six years in prison and a 20-year ban on making films after falling foul of the Iranian regime, as a member of this year's jury as a gesture of solidarity, even though he is unable to attend.

During the opening ceremony, jury president Isabella Rossellini read out an open letter from Panahi which was openly critical of the Iranian regime. "The reality is I have been kept from making films for the past five years and am now officially sentenced to be deprived of this right for another 20 years," Rossellini quoted Panahi as writing. "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 that he had been condemned to 20 years of silence. "Yet in my dreams, I scream for a time when we can tolerate each other, respect each other's opinions, and live for each other."

After Rossellini, who was standing beside Panahi's empty jury-member chair, had read out the letter, there was absolute silence in the theater for a moment. Then the gala guests gave Rossellini a long standing ovation.

The focus on Panahi somewhat overshadowed the festival's opening film, the Coen brothers' Oscar-nominated "True Grit," which stars Jeff Bridges.

'Deepest Solidarity'

Festival director Dieter Kosslick said that he had spoken to Panahi by telephone on the previous evening. The Iranian filmmaker had expressed his strong wish that the letter was read aloud, Kosslick said. Unfortunately the letter could be the last thing that is heard from Panahi for a long time, Kosslick added.

Other guests at the opening ceremony expressed their solidarity with Panahi. Bernd Neumann, who is the German government's commissioner for culture, said that it was sad that the Iranian regime had prevented Panahi from taking part in the festival, describing it an attack on freedom. "He deserves our deepest solidarity," Neumann said, to general applause.

The well known German-Iranian actress Jasmin Tabatabai also expressed her support for Panahi. The director's prison sentence and work ban showed "the true face of the Islamic Republic of Iran," she said.

All of Panahi's films will be shown during the festival, which runs until Feb. 20. The director's best known work is probably the 2006 film "Offside," which tells the story of a group of Iranian women and girls who disguise themselves as men in order to attend a soccer match. The film won a Silver Bear award at the 2006 Berlinale.

Fears of Left-Wing Violence

Other political issues are also in the focus at this year's Berlinale, which features almost 400 films from 58 countries. Earlier this week, a high-ranking Berlin police officer told the newspaper Berliner Morgenpost that police were taking extra security precautions in relation to the festival, amid concerns that left-wing extremists might target the high-profile event. Police believe that members of the city's far-left scene could be planning attacks as revenge for the recent forceful eviction of residents of an illegal squat in Berlin's gentrifying Friedrichshain neighborhood. Festival director Kosslick confirmed that the organizers were working closely together with police to coordinate security measures.

As in previous years, the 2011 Berlinale also features a number of films with overtly political themes. Foremost among them is Andres Veiel's "Wer wenn nicht wir"("If Not Us, Who"), which is showing in competition. The drama, which is set in the 1960s and based on real events, tells the story of the relationship between the German author Bernward Vesper and Gudrun Ensslin, who later went on to become one of the most prominent members of the notorious left-wing terrorist group the Red Army Faction.

Veiel's award-winning 2001 documentary "Black Box BRD," which also deals with the Red Army Faction, created a fuss when it was released and Veiel's new film is also likely to be controversial. Former associates of Vesper and Ensslin have already criticized the drama for turning the history of the West German left-wing protest movement into a soap opera -- even though the film has not even had its premiere yet.

Mysterious Theft

A whiff of political intrigue also surrounds the German-Russian documentary "Khodorkovsky," which examines the life of the Russian oligarch turned Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Unknown burglars recently broke into the Berlin office of director Cyril Tuschi and stole computers containing the final print of the film. An earlier version of the film had already been stolen while he was on Bali, according to the director.

Although the identity of the thieves is not known, there is speculation that the Kremlin might be behind the deed. "If someone wanted to scare me, then they've succeeded," Tuschi, who has reportedly now left his home for his own safety, told the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel. The festival will now be showing a final draft version that Tuschi submitted shortly before the theft.

Even some of the star-studded big-budget productions showing at this year's festival deal with political issues. J.C. Chandor's Wall Street thriller "Margin Call," starring Kevin Spacey and Demi Moore, takes a critical look at the 2008 financial crisis. It tells the story of a group of investment bankers at the heart of the crisis, who realize that their institution is on the verge of bankruptcy. "The machinery they were a part of had grown so large and complex that no one could comprehend its destructive power until it was too late," said the director, describing his film.

The Shakespeare adaptation "Coriolanus" -- the directorial debut of British actor Ralph Fiennes, who also plays the title role -- also has a political edge. Fiennes decided to transpose the action to the present, and the film was shot in the Serbian capital Belgrade, which is meant to evoke the war-torn Rome of the original play. Similarly, the battle scenes in the film, which has its world premiere in Berlin on Monday, are reminiscent of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars.

dgs -- with wire reports

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