If cinema has grown more and more political in recent times -- often highlighting and critiquing the follies of administrations the world over -- movie festivals too have not been found wanting on this score. The 2014 Busan Film Festival had a massive showdown with the South Korean Government when a documentary, The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol, on a ferry tragedy in which 300 people perished, was screened. The administration did not want the movie to be shown, but it was. So, it is not surprising that the opening night on Thursday of the Berlin Film Festival should have been all about politics - in times as these when we are all troubled by terrorism, and Trump’s travel proscription.
Everybody, just about everybody at the festival, from the glamorous celebrities on the red carpet to others seen during the rest of the evening sported a tag on their dress with bold letters which screamed “Unpresidented”. These celebrities included the Green Party politician and Bundestag Vice-President, Claudia Roth - who wore a black dress with those tell-tale letters.
On the stage during the inaugural ceremony, speaker after speaker talked about President Donald Trump’s “behaviour as the Commander-in-Chief”. The host of the evening, German actor Anke Engelke, shot a question at the audience: “Are you here for the festival? Or, is someone keeping you from going back to your home country?” The auditorium roared with laughter, and the message could not have been more blunt. Trump’s travel ban on residents from several predominantly Muslim countries was being seen as not just suffocating, but even cruel.
In yet another dig at Trump, Engelke, who is also a noted comedienne, said: “Last year, Meryl Streep served as the jury president. She did a good job, but we found out later on Twitter that we fell for someone who is the most overrated actress in Hollywood. We can’t take her again.” A loud applause rocked the hall. Trump had described her as “the most overrated actress”.
The mayor of Berlin, Michael Muller, averred, while welcoming international guests, “after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we said never again would walls divide people. We mean that now more than ever.”
True to this spirit, the festival’s lineup includes extremely political films - from stories about the pathetic plight of refugees to the rise of right-wing extremism. The opening title, Etienne Comar’s French drama, Django, is based on the true experience of the jazz guitarist-composer, Django Reinhardt, who as a Jew was forced to run away from Paris when Hitler’s army marched in… a scene that has been hauntingly narrated in the 1942 Casablanca by Humphrey Bogart’s Rick. Months later, he tells his love, Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund, “The Germans wore grey, and you wore blue”. A day that in their lives was marked by uncertainty and terror as the Nazis trooped in to the sound of the guns.
The 18 movies in Berlin which are vying for the Golden Bear include Stanley Tucci’s Final Portrait, James Mangold’s Logan, Danny Boyle’s T2 Trainspotting, Sally Potter’s The Party and Volker Schlöndorff’s Return to Montauk.
Berlin is perhaps one festival that has always been overly political. In 2015, the jury gave the Golden Bear to Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi’s The Taxi - a movie he made in sheer defiance of the Teheran administration. He transformed himself into a cabbie, picked passengers and wove a film out of all that they told him. Panahi has been banned from making movies for 20 years, and now lives under some sort of house arrest.
Sometimes, one wonders why cinema is so shackled in a country like India, which never misses an opportunity to shout that it is the world’s largest democracy. Writers and directors do no longer enjoy the right to crack a joke. The latest is Akshay Kumar’s Jolly LLB 2 - which had to excise some scenes, because someone felt that it was ridiculing the judiciary. Arshad Warsi’s prequel, Jolly LLB, did the same a few years ago, and passed unscathed. Shows how the situation is worsening by the week.
In Tamil Nadu, political outfits take offence over the flimsiest of issues. Sometimes it is the Christians, sometimes, it is the Muslims and, at some other times, some sections of the Hindu who feel peeved over this or that - and file stay orders in court to stop the film from releasing. And these are fiction features.
Let us not even talk about documentaries from men like Anand Patwardhan - which have had very rocky journeys in India.
Why are we so touchy?
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