61st Berlin International Film Festival Opens on a Serious Note

Article first published as 2011 Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) Opens on a Serious Note on Technorati.

Artistic Freedom a Strong Message, Punctuated by Iranian filmmaker, Jafar Panahi’s Vacant Chair

Berlin Film Festival Takes a Stand For Artistic Freedom

Jafar Panahi's empty chair on stage at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival

(Berlin Germany, February 10th, 2011)  The 61st Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival) began on a serious note Thursday, February 10th, as the prominent absence of respected Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was marked with a solemn and empty chair on the dais next to Jury President Isabella Rossellini.

In December of 2010, Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison and subjected to a twenty-year ban from filmmaking in his native country. He managed to smuggle out a letter that was read to the press by Jury President Isabella Rossellini, in which he said, “They have condemned me to twenty 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.”

Isabella Rossellini reads Jafar Panahi's letter to the 2011 Berlinale

Isabella Rossellini reads Jafar Panahi's letter to the 2011 Berlinale

In solidarity with Panahi, members of the jury delivered a quiet but firm message to a room packed with press from all over the globe. They made it clear that governments throughout the world must allow freedom of expression in the artistic community.

Jury President, Isabella Rossellini said, “Freedom of art is freedom of speech…Censorship of any artistic work is unacceptable in any society…It is important that every voice be heard.”

Indeed, this year, there are many films screening at the Berlinale that are diverse, culturally revealing and political in nature, for example “Barzakh,” from Mantas Kvedaravicius;  Romas Zabarauskas’ “Porno Melodrama,” “Homo@LV,” by Kaspars Goba.  The Generation program features documentary films from younger filmmakers chronicling terrors of war, parent-child angst, rites of passage, death and dying, power, sex and the fight for our environment.

In an interview with Frauke Greiner, head of Press and Publicity for the Berlinale she elaborates, “The festival itself started with a political idea after the Second World War in 1951…Berlin was a divided city.” She went on to explain that the festival wanted to show an image of a changing Germany, “that there is some sort of Democracy coming to this country and to show that the festival and the city is also a showcase of the free world.”

Frauke Greiner, head of press and publicity, Berlin Film Festival

Frauke Greiner, head of press and publicity at the Berlin International Film Festival, 2011

Greiner explains, “People take the opportunity to use this platform to speak out on what they think (and) to create a discussion between different views of the world and between different cultures.”

To honor Panahi and bring attention to his films as well as the plight of other journalists who are being censored, the Berlinale is offering a retrospective of Panahi’s films, “Offside,” winner of the Silver Bear in 2006, “The Circle,” “Crimson Gold,” “The White Balloon,” and his short film, “Untying the Knot.”

The Berlinale’s programmers, it would seem, are committed to screening films that have artistic and social merit.  Perhaps because of this, as well as the fact that the program also has the prerequisite commercial hits featuring major stars, the Berlinale has emerged as one of the top festivals in the world.

The City of Berlin, even in the midst of tough economic times, has become a global center for media creators. It is not unusual to hear it described as a Mecca for those who have migrated here from all points of the world in search of a place that will nurture creative endeavors without judgment.

If the opening day of the Berlinale is indicative of what we will be seeing and hearing in the next ten days, then the call for artistic freedom will ring loud and clear throughout this city.

The International Jury of the Berlinale is comprised of:  Isabella Rossellini, President, Jafar Panahi from Iran, Sandy Powell of Great Britain, Jan Chapman from Australia, Germany’s Nina Hoss, Aamir Khan from India and Guy Maddin of Canada.

The festival continues from February 10 to 20, 2011 in Berlin at Pottsdamer Platz. For more information about the Berlinale, www.berlinale.de