Migrant crisis in focus at Berlin fest – ‘Hail, Caesar!’ to open EU’s first major cinema showcase

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Palestinian members of the Dawaween music band, Raouf Belbeisi (right), and Rawan Okasha, play traditional oriental songs during a musical heritage concert in Gaza City on Feb 6. The Dawaween music band, founded three months ago by three musicians, counts now more than 40 members. (AFP)
Palestinian members of the Dawaween music band, Raouf Belbeisi (right), and Rawan Okasha, play traditional oriental songs during a musical heritage concert in Gaza City on Feb 6. The Dawaween music band, founded three months ago by three musicians, counts now more than 40 members. (AFP)

BERLIN, Feb 8, (AFP): Movies starring Colin Firth, Kirsten Dunst and Emma Thompson will vie for gold at the 66th Berlin Film Festival starting Thursday, with Meryl Streep as jury president and a spotlight on Europe’s refugee crisis.

The 11-day event, Europe’s first major cinema showcase of the year, will start with a gala screening of “Hail, Caesar!” with US directors Joel and Ethan Coen and stars George Clooney, Channing Tatum and Tilda Swinton expected on the red carpet in the wintry German capital.

The competition will kick off the following day, with 18 films from around the world gunning for the Golden Bear top prize, which Streep’s seven-member panel will award on February 20.

Last year, top honours went to Iranian dissident director Jafar Pahahi, whose innovative “Taxi” had to be filmed in secret in a Tehran cab.

Among the most-anticipated pictures this year is “Genius”, the feature debut by British theatre director Michael Grandage starring Oscar winner Firth as literary editor Max Perkins, who published some of the 20th century’s greatest American writers.

Jude Law plays writer Thomas Wolfe, Nicole Kidman his lover and muse Aline Bernstein, with Dominic West portraying Ernest Hemingway and Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald.


Also generating buzz ahead of the festival is a new adaptation of the international bestseller “Alone in Berlin”, Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel which is based on a true story.

The Nazi-era thriller sees Thompson and Irish actor Brendan Gleeson play a working-class German couple who mount a daring resistance campaign after losing their only son in the war.

Another first feature, “Hedi” by Tunisian filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia, tells a love story set in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. It will be the first film made entirely in the Arab world to appear in competition in Berlin in two decades.

“The overarching theme this year is the right to happiness — the right to a home, to love, to self-determination, to life and to survival,” festival director Dieter Kosslick told reporters.

US director Jeff Nichols, who built a reputation with independent hits such as “Mud” and “Take Shelter”, will present the sci-fi thriller “Midnight Special” with his frequent star Michael Shannon, Dunst and Adam Driver of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”.

It tells the story of a man racing to protect his gifted young son from a religious cult leader and government agents.

French veteran Andre Techine will present a new drama, “Being 17”, while Oscar-winning Bosnian director Danis Tanovic will premiere “Death in Sarajevo” based on a play by French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy.

Also in the main line-up are two documentaries, Alex Gibney’s “Zero Days” about the threat posed by cybersecurity breaches, and “Fire at Sea” by Italian director Gianfranco Rosi, winner of the Venice film festival’s 2013 Golden Lion.

Rosi spent months on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa to tell the story of a community on the front line of Europe’s largest influx of migrants since World War II.

Meanwhile, a more than eight-hour-long Filipino movie, “A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery”, promises to test the stamina of even hard-core movie buffs.


Refugees will play a major role on screen and off at the Berlinale, which began as a Cold War-era window on the world for embattled West Berlin.

“Since 1951, the Berlinale has been doing its bit to promote peace among peoples and this year is no different,” Kosslick said.

More than a dozen films in the festival’s sprawling sidebar sections will focus on people fleeing war and repression, while organisers have planned a range of initiatives to help asylum seekers, 1.1 million of whom arrived in Germany last year.

They include invitations to attend screenings in the company of local volunteers to foster cultural exchange, internships with the Berlinale management, a street food van staffed by refugees and donation drives at the festival’s gala events.

“We believe we need to engage with the reality around us and not just have a laugh on the red carpet,” Kosslick said.

Critic Jan Schulz-Ojala, who has covered the festival for two decades for Berlin’s daily Tagesspiegel, said he thought the high-profile event was coming at just the right time, with Europe bitterly divided over the refugee question.

“You’re seeing a rollback in Germany of the welcome mat for refugees and a rise of far-right groups,” he told AFP.

“The Berlinale has a chance to look at this issue from a different perspective than you see in the news, and the art of cinema can help fight against knee-jerk reactions.”

More than 400 films will be screened during the 11-day gathering, alongside a slew of special events.

Here’s a list of Berlinale highlights already generating buzz:

Clooney in a miniskirt: Germany harbours a special love for Hollywood charmer George Clooney, a frequent and honoured guest at the Berlinale.

The festival will open with a gala screening of his new movie, Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Hail, Caesar!”, and Clooney is expected on the red carpet with his wife Amal along with co-stars Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton and this year’s jury president Meryl Streep.

In what the Coens have called the third in a “Numbskull Trilogy” with Clooney, the actor plays a dimwitted 1950s movie star appearing in a swords-and-sandals epic.

The German papers say hearts are already aflutter at the prospect of Gorgeous George in a Roman soldier’s metal miniskirt.

Master class with Meryl: Streep will be doing her first stint at film festival jury duty.

But on Feb 14, Valentine’s Day no less, she will take a break from sizing up the 18 contenders for the Golden Bear top prize to give a master class to a few hundred lucky young actors.

The festival’s Talent Campus says the three-time Oscar winner, master of accents and feminist icon will impart “her experience from decades at the top of the acting profession”.

Cinema as endurance sport: The German language, of course, has a word to describe the patience and perseverance required to sit through something extremely long: Sitzfleisch.

A Filipino contender by director Lav Diaz weighs in at more than eight hours long, with an hour’s break scheduled around the halfway mark.

It is the longest entry ever to vie for the Golden Bear in the festival’s 66-year history.

“A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery” is described as a tableau of the tumultuous political history of the Philippines and will occupy the Berlinale Palast main venue for an entire day.

Streep may be pronouncing Sitzfleisch with an impeccable German accent before the screening is out.

Fallada returns: Many call Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel “Alone in Berlin” the greatest work of fiction ever set in the German capital.

The Nazi-era thriller, based on a true story, depicts German parents whose only son falls in battle, prompting them to mount a daring resistance campaign against Hitler.

The first English-language film adaptation of the international bestseller stars two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson and Irish actor Brendan Gleeson as the pair who risk everything to take a principled stand.

One-Two-punch: Two of the most outspoken voices in US filmmaking, Spike Lee and Michael Moore, will give back-to-back press conferences on February 16 after the European premieres of their latest films.

Lee will sit down with reporters to discuss “Chi-Raq”, a music-infused satire of gun violence in Chicago.

But no prizes for guessing that the conversation will also hit the Oscars race controversy, gun violence and the US presidential race.

And while Moore will be plugging his documentary “Where to Invade Next”, expect him to hold forth on the Syrian refugees he has taken in to his Michigan home and the Flint water contamination scandal, to name just two issues.

Personal stories: Biopics are all the rage this year so expect long queues for these high-profile releases:

Don Cheadle, perhaps best known as Robert Downey Jr’s sidekick in the “Iron Man” films, will appear in his own passion project about jazz icon Miles Davis, “Miles Ahead”, for which he raised a large chunk of the financing on crowdfunding website Indiegogo.

In “A Quiet Passion”, “Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon takes an unlikely turn as mysterious 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson.

Meanwhile Germany’s first feature on the Jewish teenage diarist Anne Frank, who died at Bergen-Belsen, will have its world premiere.

And Oscar winner Colin Firth leads an all-star cast in “Genius” portraying American literary editor Max Perkins who polished the manuscripts of Thomas Wolfe (played by Jude Law), Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce).

The 66th Berlinale, Europe’s first major film festival of the year, starts Thursday with 23 international productions screening in the main showcase.

Eighteen pictures will vie for the Golden Bear top prize at the event which runs from Feb 11 to 21, with a jury led by three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep selecting the best film. Nineteen of the main features are world premieres and two are directors’ feature debuts.

The Berlinale Special sidebar section features other notable films that are given gala screenings.

Here is the complete list including the English title, director, well-known stars and countries where the films were produced:

“24 Wochen” (24 Weeks), Anne Zohra Berrached, Germany

“Alone in Berlin”, Vincent Perez starring Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson, Germany/France/Britain

“Boris sans Beatrice” (Boris without Beatrice), Denis Cote, Canada

“Cartas da guerra” (Letters from War), Ivo M. Ferreira, Portugal

“Chang Jiang Tu” (Crosscurrent), Yang Chao, China

“Chi-Raq”, Spike Lee starring Jennifer Hudson and Angela Bassett, US (out of competition)

“Des nouvelles de la planete Mars” (News from Planet Mars), Dominik Moll, France/Belgium (out of competition)

“Ejhdeha Vared Mishavad!” (A Dragon Arrives!), Mani Haghighi, Iran

“Fuocoammare” (Fire at Sea), Gianfranco Rosi, Italy/France (documentary)

“Genius”, Michael Grandage starring Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney and Guy Pearce, Britain/US (debut film)

“Hail, Caesar!” Joel and Ethan Coen starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Channing Tatum, US/Britain (out of competition)

“Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis” (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery), Lav Diaz, Philippines/Singapore

“Inhebbek Hedi” (Hedi), Mohamed Ben Attia, Tunisia/Belgium/France (debut film)

“Kollektivet” (The Commune), Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark/Sweden/Netherlands

“L’avenir” (Things to Come), Mia Hansen-Love starring Isabelle Huppert, France/Germany

“Mahana” (The Patriarch), Lee Tamahori, New Zealand (out of competition)

“Midnight Special”, Jeff Nichols starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst and Adam Driver, US

“Quand on a 17 ans” (Being 17), Andre Techine starring Sandrine Kiberlain, France

“Saint Amour”, Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern starring Gerard Depardieu, France/Belgium (out of competition)

“Smrt u Sarajevu” (Death in Sarajevo), Danis Tanovic, France/Bosnia

“Soy Nero”, Rafi Pitts, Germany/France/Mexico

“Zero Days”, Alex Gibney, US (documentary)

“Zjednoczone Stany Milosci” (United States of Love), Tomasz Wasilewski, Poland/Sweden

Berlinale special highlights

“A Quiet Passion”, Terence Davies starring Cynthia Nixon as reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, Britain/Belgium

“Creepy”, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan

“Den allvarsamma leken” (A Serious Game), Pernilla August, Sweden/Denmark/Norway

“Miles Ahead”, Don Cheadle starring Cheadle as Miles Davis and co-starring Ewan McGregor, US

“National Bird”, Sonia Kennebeck, US

“The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble”, Morgan Neville, US (documentary)

“The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger”, Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth, Bartek Dziadosz and Tilda Swinton, Britain (documentary)

“Where To Invade Next”, Michael Moore, US (documentary)

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