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Berlin Film Fest Braces for Protests Over Israel-Hamas War

The Berlin International Film Festival, which kicks off Feb. 15, is already preparing for protests and debate surrounding the ongoing war in the Middle East, protests of the kind that have shaken up film festivals throughout the world in the months since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks on Israel and Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

At Sundance in January, several hundred pro-Palestinian protesters, including actors Melissa Barrera and Indya Moore, shut down traffic on Main Street in Park City. In November, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) was caught between demonstrators on both sides of the issue, with several directors pulling their films in protest over IDFA statements in reference to the war.

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Berlin, the world’s largest public film festival — and by some measures the most political of the big fests — is set to become a focus point for similar demonstrations and debates.

But Berlin is different. Confrontations over events in Gaza are unlikely to involve only activists and filmmakers. The German government, the prime financial backer of the Berlinale, along with the country’s cultural and political elite, could also be drawn into the fray.

And Berlin is different because Germany is different. In the nation that carried out the Holocaust, debates involving Israel are framed differently than they are in Amsterdam or Park City.

German history is literally a backdrop to the Berlinale. Less than a mile from the festival’s red carpet on Marlene Dietrich Platz — a square named for the German film star who fled Hitler for Hollywood — stands the Holocaust memorial. The memorial is a reminder, in concrete slabs resembling toppling tombstones, of the millions of Jews murdered in Europe by the Nazis. That history — Germany’s political and social response to the Shoah, sometimes referred to as Erinnerungskultur, or culture of remembrance — will always be at the center of any discussion in Berlin on Israel and Palestine.

“The Berlinale in the past has been very politically active — we saw the strong support for Ukraine at the festival last year, [and] after the Arab Spring, the festival quickly set up a special section of features from the region,” says Christian Berndt, a film reviewer and culture journalist for German public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. “But it is particularly challenging for a German cultural institution like the Berlinale to have this debate on the war in Gaza.”

Ahead of the festival, Berlinale co-directors Mariëtte Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian tried to strike a balance, saying their sympathy “goes out to all the victims of the humanitarian crises in the Middle East and elsewhere.” They expressed their concern about the rise of “antisemitism, anti-Muslim resentment and hate speech” in Germany and around the world and said that, as a cultural institution, they “take a firm stand against all forms of discrimination and are committed to intercultural understanding.”

Several films in this year’s official Berlinale selection could serve as a starting point for the “peaceful dialogue” Rissenbeek and Chatrian are calling for. There’s No Other Land, screening in the documentary section of Berlin’s Panorama sidebar, about Israeli settler violence in the West Bank, directed by a Palestinian-Israeli collective. Or Andrei Cohn’s Holy Week in the Forum section that looks at racism and antisemitism but also collective life among Christians and Jews in Romania circa 1900. Or Treasure, a 1990s-set drama from German director Julia von Heinz starring Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry about the generational impact of the Holocaust.

The Berlinale is also partnering with Berlin social activists to create an intimate space for festival attendees to discuss and debate the crisis in the Middle East. The “Tiny Space” project will see the festival set up a small cabin-like structure near the Berlinale red carpet for three days, from Saturday, Feb. 17 to Monday, Feb. 19, 10 am to 6 pm daily, where people can come to talk about “aspects of the war, but also the conflict in the Middle East more generally,” says Rissenbeek.

“Right now, in society, it has become very hard to combine the two sides of the debate [around the war in Gaza] in a single room, you are forced to stand for one side or the other,” says Chatrain. “What we’d like to do as a festival is to provide a place where a dialog is possible. We believe a dialog is possible if we start with small groups [and] provide a space where certain arguments or certain emotions can be handled better than in a theater with 500 or 1,000 people.”

For many, inside and outside Berlin, that wasn’t enough. Two days before the festival was set to kick off, a group of Berlinale workers signed an open letter calling for the festival to do more, including demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and the immediate release of all hostages. The letter, signed by more than two dozen workers, including programmers and moderators for the festival’s sidebar sections Panorama, Forum and Generation, as well as the European Film Market, Berlinale Talents and Berlinale Goes Kiez, said they “want to hold the festival and ourselves to a higher standard…As the world bears witness to an inconceivable loss of civilian life in Gaza – including those of journalists, artists, and film workers – as well as the destruction of unique cultural heritage,” the open letter reads, “we need stronger institutional stances. We expect the festival to take a stance that is consistent with those taken in response to other events that have struck the international community in recent years.”

Already, two directors set to come to Berlin have bowed out. Ayo Tsalithaba, a Toronto-based artist and filmmaker originally from Ghana and Lesotho who uses they/their pronouns, withdrew their film Atmospheric Arrivals, and Indian American artist Suneil Sanzgiri pulled his Two Refusals (Would We Recognize Ourselves Unbroken?). Both films were set to premiere in the Berlinale’s Forum Expanded section for experimental cinema. Tsalithaba and Sanzgiri both announced their support for Strike Germany, an online petition, started early this year, which calls for a boycott of all state-sponsored cultural institutions in Germany. (The Berlinale receives around $14 million in funding annually from the German federal ministry for culture and media.) On its website, Strike Germany calls on “international culture workers” to withhold their “labor and presence” from German cultural institutions, film festivals, panels and exhibitions until the Berlin government ends what the group calls its “McCarthyist policies that suppress freedom of expression, specifically expressions of solidarity with Palestine.”

Strike Germany was started by an anonymous group that on its website describes itself as a “broad coalition of artists, filmmakers, writers and cultural workers based in Berlin.” Strike Germany did not answer emails from THR asking for further details about the group.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be an artist right now and what it means to be a politically conscious person — like I have always been for my entire life,” Tsalithaba says. “I’m just not someone to censor myself. I also wanted to make sure that I would be safe and not targeted [for my views]. There’s obviously a push toward either silence or complicity. We are seeing this in Canada and globally: Large cultural institutions silencing their workers and trying to deflect from explicit statements that what’s going on in Gaza is horrific.”

The Strike Germany protests point to the German government’s staunch support of Israel before and since the start of the war in Gaza. In a visit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shortly after the Oct. 7 attacks, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called Israel’s security Germany’s “Staatsräson” (raison d’état). Back in 2019, Germany’s Parliament, the Bundestag, passed a nonbinding resolution condemning the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls for a boycott of Israel and Israeli institutions, as “antisemitic” and called on state bodies to cut off funding to any organizations that “actively support” BDS.

“This isn’t just about the Berlinale or about a specific cultural institution,” says Tsalithaba. “I don’t want to focus on the Berlinale but on the calls that are coming from groups like Strike Germany, like Filmmakers for Palestine and countless other groups that are calling not just for an immediate cease-fire but also for us to refocus our fight against antisemitism and a deep awareness of the colonial systems that led to the violence of occupation and accountability from institutions and governments that are complicit in the subjugation of Palestinians.”

On the state level, Berlin Senator for Culture Joe Chialo changed public funding laws earlier this year, adding an “anti-discrimination” clause that specifically highlighted antisemitism and would block funding for artists or groups expressing antisemitic, racist or otherwise marginalizing views. Chialo quickly reversed course, however, after many artists suggested the clause as written constituted state censorship and would be illegal under Berlin’s constitution.

But to call such developments “McCarthyist” or “neo-fascist,” as Strike Germany has done, “is just outrageous and wrong,” says Berndt. “There isn’t state censorship in Germany. There is simply a different sensibility. Things like calling for a boycott of Israel, like BDS does, reminds Germans of the anti-Jewish laws under the Nazis.”

“I find these anonymous campaigns [like Strike Germany] frankly a form of blackmail because there is no person, no institution with which you can debate, so no dialogue is possible,” argues Lars Henrik Gass, director of the Oberhausen Short Film Festival. “There appears to be a desire by some filmmakers to be free from opposing views [at film festivals],” he adds. “But there is no such guarantee at a festival. That goes against the whole purpose of a festival, which is to provide a forum for debate and dissonance. Otherwise we could just have a festival for Israeli filmmakers and another for Palestinian filmmakers.”

Adding fuel to the fire of this debate inside Germany is the rise of the AfD, a far-right party that’s polling at around 20 percent support among the national electorate. The AfD supports anti-migrant policies, and its leaders often use openly racist, anti-Muslim and antisemitic rhetoric.

News that the Berlinale has invited elected members of the AfD to the festival’s opening night ceremony —standard protocol for a state-backed festival —sparked a separate protest, with more than 200 film professionals writing an open letter calling the move a violation of the festival’s ethical principles. Something Rissenbeek denies.

“I think we’ve made it very clear that we don’t agree with [the AfD]. On the contrary, we are of the exact opposite opinion. But we don’t only invite people to the Berlinale who agree with us,” she says. “I think it is stronger to give a clear statement of our values on the stage at the opening ceremony and in the media: To tell [the AfD] we will not keep you from coming but your values are not represented here.”

[Days after making this statement, and amid a storm of criticism in the German media, the Berlinale reversed course, and abruptly disinvited the AfD politicians.]

Complicating the matter still further, the AfD has, in the past, also been supportive of Israel’s right-wing government. In 2019, it proposed an even stricter anti-BDS resolution, calling for an outright ban on BDS in Germany.

“Being pro-Israeli government and openly antisemitic is sadly not a contradiction in terms,” says Lea Wohl von Haselberg, co-director of the Jewish Film Festival Berlin Brandenburg, Germany’s largest Jewish film festival. She decries the polarizing debate around the war in German media and cultural circles, noting that perspectives that don’t fit the simplified pro-Israeli versus pro-Palestinian narrative are often ignored.

“We have close ties to Israeli filmmakers, most of whom are strongly opposed to the current Israeli government,” she notes. “But such contrasting or complicating views get little attention in the media here.”

Instead of the polemics of boycotts and protests, von Haselberg says the focus at an international festival like the Berlinale should be on the films themselves.

“Most films, most good films, are about complication and contrast,” she says. “We would never accept a film to our festival that presents the debate [on Israel and Palestine] in such simplistic, polarizing terms.”

Adds Treasure director von Heinz: “The Berlinale should be a place were we can come together and have a dialogue. And that’s the opposite of a boycott.”

This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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