As the Berlin International Film Festival kicked off last week, the upheaval in Egypt was on everyone's lips here in the German capital. But it was the bitter aftermath of Iran's 2009 populist uprising that truly infused this year's Berlinale.
The festival jury, headed by Italian actress Isabella Rossellini, was to include Iranian director Jafar Panahiwho won the festival's Silver Bear in 2006 for his film "Offside," about a group of women trying to sneak into a forbidden soccer game. But in December, Iranian authorities sentenced Panahi and fellow filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof to six years in prison for "propaganda against the system" for working on a film about Iran's 2009 post-election chaos. Panahi also was banned from traveling abroad or working on film for 20 years.
His jury chair was left empty, and at the opening night ceremonies, Rossellini read from a moving letter sent by the director, which closed with the words, "So from now on, and for the next 20 years, I'm forced to be silent. I'm forced not to be able to see, I'm forced not to be able to think, I'm forced not to be able to make films," he wrote. "I submit to the reality of the captivity and the captors. I will look for the manifestation of my dreams in your films, hoping to find in them what I have been deprived of."
Still, festival organizers made sure audiences were not deprived of Panahi's vision; four of his films were screened, each presented by an Iranian actor or director.
Rafi Pitts, who introduced Panahi's 2003 "Crimson Gold," said in an interview: "It's a nightmare that the film industry is living. And it's never happened in the history of cinema. Even during the McCarthy purges in America, it never got to this stage, where for an idea you would get a prison sentence."
Pitts, who lives in Paris but films in Iran, knows well the peculiar predicament that Tehran puts filmmakers in; his latest movie, "The Hunter," which screened at last year's Berlinale, had its script approved by government censors before 2009's election. Those censors have now been replaced, and the finished film has been banned from being shown in Iran.
Some Iranian directors do manage to make art within the system and have their films screened both at home and top festivals abroad. One of them, Asghar Farhadi, is in competition in Berlin this year with "Nader and Simin: A Separation," which tells the story of a couple on the edge of divorce but also delves into gender, class and religious issues while adding the tense feel of a thriller. Farhadi's "About Elly" won a Silver Bear for best director in 2009.
Filming of the movie was temporarily halted last year after Farhadi expressed support for Iranian filmmakers and actors in exile; in Berlin, he spoke carefully in reference to Panahi's situation. "You are familiar with him through his films — I know him personally," he said at a news conference. "I said goodbye to him when I came here. And I was extremely saddened, because I said goodbye to him, leaving for a place where he couldn't go."
("Nader and Simin" won three awards at Tehran's Fajr Film Festival this week: best director, best screenplay and audience favorite.)
Other notable, if heavy, competition entries included Ralph Fiennes' directorial debut, "Coriolanus," Shakespeare's tale of a viciously effective general whose foray into politics is waylaid by his disdain for common folk. Fiennes also stars in the film, along with Vanessa Redgrave and Gerard Butler. While the play is set in ancient Rome, and the Bard's dialogue remains unchanged, the film takes place in what looks like war-torn Europe; it was shot in the Serbian capital, Belgrade.
Also moving east was Joshua Marston, who took on Columbian drug mules in "Maria Full of Grace." He debuted his new work, "The Forgiveness of Blood," on Friday. Filmed in Albania, the movie deals with the clash between the mobile phone, video game and internet-filled life of teenagers and the traditional ways of their families, which include blood feuds and land disputes.
Power, corruption and lies were key themes in the festival's Panorama section, always full of controversial subjects and unconventional aesthetic styles. Generating buzz this year was the engaging German documentary "Khodorkovsky," which traces the rise and fall of Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky from his Communist youth league years, through his creation of Menatep Bank and takeover of the Yukos oil company, and then his arrest and Kafka-esque series of trials.
Interviews are blended with witty white-on-black animations depicting Khodorkovsky swimming through a pool of golden coins, and being arrested on his private jet, as well as a few video diary entries from the film's increasingly paranoid director, Cyril Tuschi, who spent five years making his documentary.
But Tuschi's paranoia was not irrational; his office was in fact broken into, and the computer containing the final edit of the film was stolen shortly before the movie's premiere. Addressing reporters, Tuschi said he was met with distrust and suspicion during the project in Moscow.
"Nobody wanted to talk about Khodorkovsky. They all thought they would lose business connections," he said. "There was a big mistrust. Why are you doing this from Germany? What do you want? Are you a spy? Who paid you?"
The section also screened Giulio Manfredonia's raucous farce "Qualunquemente" (Whatsoeverly), which follows a buffoonish criminal running for mayor in southern Italy and offending, injuring, or paying off everyone in his path.
Though dead silly and wrapped in slapstick, the film can't help but remind viewers of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who just this week was ordered to face trial on charges he paid for sex with an underage girl and helped win her release from police custody when she was suspected of theft.
No Egyptian films screened in the Berlinale program this year, and some Egyptian filmmakers and actors who had planned to attend reportedly chose to stay at home to film or participate in the protests. In response, Mec Films, a local distributor of Middle Eastern cinema, organized a moderated program of shorts, trailers and video briefs from independent Egyptian filmmakers for Friday.
With films already in the works about the historic protests, and with many people expecting greater artistic freedom in the most populous Arab nation, anticipation is running high for a new era in Egyptian cinema. But does film still matter in a world where social networks and mobile phone videos seem best at fomenting and documenting change?
Iranian filmmaker Pitts thinks so. He foresees a whole new filmic life on the horizon for the country, despite the political disappointments in his own homeland.