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Refugee crisis in spotlight at Berlinale – Streep sparks controversy with ‘we’re all Africans’ remarks

US actor George Clooney (second from left) and his wife Amal Clooney pose for a photograph at the red carpet for ‘Hail, Caesar!’ the opening film of the 2016 Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin, Germany on  Feb 11. (AP)
US actor George Clooney (second from left) and his wife Amal Clooney pose for a photograph at the red carpet for ‘Hail, Caesar!’ the opening film of the 2016 Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin, Germany on
Feb 11. (AP)

LOS ANGELES, Feb 12, (Agencies): Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Hail, Caesar!” opened the Berlin Film Festival on Thursday, with Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Tilda Swinton and Channing Tatum on the red carpet.

Jury president Meryl Streep, wearing an elegant black and silver snakeskin-print gown, appeared unfazed by the online controversy surrounding her “We are all Africans” statement earlier in the day at the jury press conference.

Streep received loud applause from the crowds, signed autographs and lingered 10 minutes or more with other members of the jury, including actors Lars Eidinger and Clive Owen, actress Alba Rohrwacher and director Malgorzata Szumowska. They were then greeted by festival boss Dieter Kosslick under a huge red bear silhouette at the entrance to the Berlinale Palast.

Opening night guests included “Hail, Caesar!” producers and Working Title chiefs Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner; filmmakers Daniel Burman, Anton Corbijn, Doris Doerrie, Volker Schloendorff, Tom Tykwer and Wim Wenders; and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

Despite the Berlin winter chill, crowds stood 10 deep to catch glimpses of the stars arriving by limousine and trotting the 30 meters of red carpet into the Palast.

The audience in the theater was as effusive as the fans standing outside and gave Streep a standing ovation. The actress responded with equal warmth. “It’s an enormous privilege to be here in a city and a part of the world that loves movies and thinks movies are important, and loves challenging, difficult, provocative movies, so I feel very lucky to be here,” she said.

The tone of the opening ceremony was set by the host, German actress and comedienne Anke Engelke. She asked: “What does it mean to make films, to watch films? It means to open up our minds, learn, educate, look for the truth, be wide open, which I think is very important at a time when people are seriously thinking about closing borders.” Her remark was met by prolonged applause.

Emphathy

The German minister of culture and media Monika Gruetters and mayor of Berlin Michael Mueller echoed her comment about openness and a welcoming attitude to outsiders, emphasizing the need for empathy with refugees at a time when some in Germany have been calling for tighter restrictions on immigration. Gruetters said: “There is a lot more that unites people around the world than separates us.” She added: “Culture can open up our world. Thanks for being so cosmopolitan and so open to the world.”

Mueller said: “We have often received help and solidarity ourselves, and now it is time for us to return that help and solidarity.” He added: “We must stand up to those who want to ostracize people and show solidarity to people who need our help.”

Meanwhile, Meryl Streep, the most admired actress of her generation, fueled Hollywood’s diversity controversy on Thursday when she said that all of humanity originated in Africa.

The three-time Oscar winner, who is in Berlin heading up her first international film jury, made the comment at a news conference when she was asked if she was familiar with world cinema, particularly films from Africa and the Middle East.

She said she had recently seen the Jordanian film “Theeb,” about a Bedouin boy on a hazardous mission in the desert, and also “Timbuktu,” about Islamist militants taking over the fabled Malian city.

“The thing that I notice is that there is a core of humanity that travels right through every culture,” she said. “And after all, we’re all from Africa originally, you know. We’re all Berliners; we’re all Africans, really.”

The comments from Streep, who has been Oscar-nominated a record 19 times, made headlines around the world and swiftly became one of the top trends on Twitter.

They followed an uproar over the all-white Oscar acting nominee selection for a second straight year, which forced the movie industry to confront how blacks, Asians and Latinos are represented in front of and behind the camera in Hollywood.

Some commentators on Thursday expressed disappointment.

Smarter

“You’d think Meryl Streep would be smarter than to say “We’re all Africans, really” in any context, but alas,” said @Jamil Smith.

Instead the conference was dominated by some self-deprecative humor from jury president Meryl Streep and the dry wit of Sight and Sound editor Nick James.

“I have no idea how to run a jury,” said Streep 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.”

In a related news, the international premiere at the Berlin film festival for the Coen brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” turned into a debate about refugees on Thursday as the filmmakers and cast found themselves challenged at a news conference to do more to end the crisis.

Over one million refugees arrived in Europe last year, many fleeing war and poverty. Thousands died in the perilous journey, mostly by sea and then land. The influx has put governments under strain, and countries are tightening their asylum rules.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday hosted George Clooney for talks on Europe’s refugee influx, her spokesman said, after the Hollywood idol offered to lend star power to help with the crisis.

Discussions between the German leader and Clooney, as well as his wife Amal — a Lebanese-born human rights lawyer — focused on “refugee policies and their involvement in the” aid group International Rescue Committee, Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert wrote on Twitter.

Clooney and his wife were in German capital to attend the Berlinale film festival, which this year also puts Europe’s refugee influx in the spotlight.

The actor had told reporters on Thursday that he would meet Merkel and, separately, a group of asylum seekers, “to talk about and ask what messages and what things we can do… to help.”

Germany took in around 1.1 million asylum seekers in 2015 alone, but opposition is growing within the country against Merkel’s liberal policy.

An opinion poll published late January showed that nearly 40 percent of German voters want Merkel to quit over her asylum policy.

The chancellor has pledged to “tangibly” reduce the number of migrants and asylum seekers arriving this year with a range of measures in Germany, on the European level and with the help of international partners such as Turkey.

Although the Berlinale is spotlighting around a dozen films focused on refugees, Clooney admitted it would take time before Hollywood would turn its attention to such stories.

“The unfortunate thing about the film community is we react to situations much more than we lead the way. News stories have to continue to happen and then scripts are written and it takes a couple years before people are actually making films about it,” he told reporters.

“It’s also very difficult to just make a subject film. You have to have a reason — a character and a reason to make it.”

When asked a critical question about Hollywood escapism after a press screening of “Hail, Caesar!”, a light-hearted romp, Joel Coen said filmmakers were under no obligation to deal with the most pressing issues of their time.

“To point the finger and say, you should be telling this particular story — it’s a misunderstanding about how movies get written and made. Are those stories important? Yes. Does it make sense to sort of say, ‘you’re a public figure, you tell stories, why aren’t you telling that story?’ is a funny question, frankly.”

However he noted that he and Ethan Coen as presidents of the Cannes film festival jury last year awarded the top prize to the French movie “Dheepan”, which offered an unflinching look at the plight of three Sri Lankan refugees in a violent Paris suburb.

“I think it had a lot to contribute to that discussion,” he said.

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