Berlin film festival beams in Zelensky for opener with Sean Penn

AFP , Friday 17 Feb 2023

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky joined Hollywood actor Sean Penn by video link on Thursday at the opening of the Berlinale, Europe's first major film festival of the year, calling for the entertainment world to maintain its "solidarity" with his besieged country.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the audience via a video message during the Opening Gala of the Berlinale, Europe s first major film festival of the year, in Berlin on 16 February 2023. (Photo: AFP)


The 73rd annual event, traditionally the most politically minded of the three big European cinema showcases, is marking the first anniversary of the Russian invasion as well as anti-regime protests in Iran with new feature films and documentaries.

Penn appeared on stage at the festival's inaugural gala and introduced the Ukrainian leader, who spoke live via video stream and was greeted by a standing ovation from the audience.

"Cinema cannot change the world," said Zelensky, wearing his now trademark sweatshirt. "But it can influence and inspire people who can change the world."

Penn, who was filming in Kyiv at the start of the Russian onslaught, will this weekend premiere "Superpower", tracking Zelensky's transformation from comedian to president to war hero.

The two-time Oscar winner said he had just returned from the Ukrainian capital.

"Nothing has changed in terms of the will of the Ukrainian people," Penn said. "That's for sure. If anything, it's just gotten stronger."

The festival's artistic director Carlo Chatrian paid tribute to "the suffering population, the millions who left Ukraine and the artists (who) have remained defending the country and continue filming the war".

US actor Kristen Stewart ("Spencer"), head of the jury for the Golden and Silver Bear top prizes, told reporters earlier that the event was "an enormous opportunity to have a hand in highlighting beautiful things" in the face of global turmoil.

"It's the job of an artist to take a disgusting and ugly thing and sort of transmute it and put it through your body and pump out something more beautiful... in response to the world that's falling apart around us," she said.

Beyond movie screenings, the Berlinale plans panel discussions with embattled directors and red-carpet protests in a show of "solidarity" with the people of Iran and Ukraine.

'Desire for peace'

Hollywood actors Peter Dinklage, Anne Hathaway and Marisa Tomei presented their romantic comedy "She Came to Me" by director Rebecca Miller, the first of nearly 300 new movies from around the world to screen during the 11-day event.

They told reporters they were honoured to premiere the film at a ceremony addressed by Zelensky, with Hathaway calling him "a hero of our times".

She thanked the festival "for giving us all the opportunity to amplify the message of Ukraine, which is the almost universal desire for peace".

Miller, whose movie addresses fraught US race relations and tensions over religious beliefs, said she saw filmmaking as "a kind of patriotic act to show different aspects of our country".

"One of the ways in which we can perhaps have a more peaceful world is by having our art talk to each other across the nations," she said.

Nineteen films will vie for the main awards, including British-US co-production "Manodrome" featuring Jesse Eisenberg and Adrien Brody in a thriller about an Uber driver who is lured into a cult while he is expecting his first child.

Two Asian animated pictures will also join the running, "Art College 1994" by China's Liu Jian and Makoto Shinkai's "Suzume", the first Japanese anime to compete at the Berlinale since Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" clinched the Golden Bear in 2002.

Gold for Spielberg

After lean years due to the pandemic, it is the starriest Berlinale edition in recent memory, with Helen Mirren, Vicky Krieps, folk legend Joan Baez and U2 frontman Bono also awaited on the red carpet.

Three-time Academy Award winner Steven Spielberg is to collect an honorary Golden Bear for his life's work, honoured with a retrospective.

A third of the films in competition are by women, who make up 40 percent of all directors represented in the official selection.

The Berlinale ranks with Cannes and Venice among Europe's leading film festivals. It will hand out the top prizes on February 25 before wrapping up the next day with screenings of popular movies from this year's event.

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