Meryl Streep to head Berlinale Jury, with competing films focusing on migrants

AFP , Monday 8 Feb 2016

Dieter Kosslick, director of the international film festival Berlinale waves as he arrives for a press conference prior to the 66th edition of the festival in Berlin on February 2, 2016 (Photo: 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."

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