The 73rd Berlinale
Between nostalgia and the challenges of renewal

©Alexander Janetzko, Berlinale 2020

The German film festival is finally returning to its former normal state. Ahmed Shawky reports on anticipation, organizational and cultural changes at the 73rd Berlinale.

By Ahmed Shawky

Three years ago, we arrived in Berlin to attend the seventieth session of Berlinale, amid scattered news about a new virus that had appeared in China and was spreading, and simple health advice was limited to using hand sanitizer and drinking water constantly. News about the virus increased during the days of the festival, with the emergence of cases in northern Italy, followed by the news of the complete closure of the region. We returned to Cairo at the end of the festival, but the pandemic had been officially declared, closing all airports and closing the entire world for the first time in history.

This unprecedented closure affected all aspects of life, especially those associated with the meeting of many people, such as watching movies. Since the invention of cinema, never has a day passed when all the halls of the world closed their doors, even in the darkest days of world wars. As for Berlinale - the festival that prides itself on being the most crowd-attracting in Europe - it was forced to hold two consecutive sessions, according to strict health measures.

The festival is finally returning to its former normal state: At the 73rd Berlinale from February 16th to 26th, there are no longer any hygiene requirements. Pandemic news must give way and make room for the discourse about cinema, the arts and the concerns of our time raised by the films of the upcoming Berlinale from all over the world.

International competition, formal diversity

All eyes are naturally on the official competition, where 19 films compete for the prestigious Golden Bear award. The list of films chosen by the festival for the competition has sparked many comments from the audience, both negatively and positively. It is a good thing that two animated films were selected for the competition for the first time in history, namely the Chinese film "Art College 1994" by Lu Jian, and the Japanese film "Suzume" by Makoto Shinkai. The film, which was shown commercially in Japan last November, collected revenues of $ 13.5 million, making it one of the most successful films in the country's history. The choice of a commercially screened film is very unusual in expressing how much the festival programmers like the film.

With the selection of six films by women directors, the festival shows a clear interest in the stories, female filmmakers tell

The diversity of forms is not limited to animated films, as it extends to choosing a documentary film, "On the Adamant" by veteran Frenchman Nicolas Flipper, which monitors daily life inside the "Adamant" day care home, a center that receives adults with mental illness every day, trying to improve their condition and help them overcome the societal stigma surrounding them.

As for the strangest experiences selected for the competition, the Portuguese film “Bad Living” by João Canejo is an independently ordinary film about five women who run an old hotel, where a girl arrives, who causes the reopening of old wounds that everyone thought were closed forever. However, another film by Canejo entitled "Living Bad" is being shown simultaneously at the "Encounters" competition in Berlinale. According to what the press file - as well as the title - shows, it is the inverted of the first film, in which the director tells the story from a different perspective.

With the selection of six films by women directors, the festival shows a clear interest in women's cinema. At more than 30%, the proportion of female directors is significantly higher than at other major film festivals such as Cannes.

Notes on Geographical Representation

In contrast to the diversity of film genres and the increased presence of women, the competition comes with fewer geographical diversity and representation of world cinema, with the selection of 11 European films, all of which belong to the West of the continent (Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Britain), while Eastern European cinema is completely absent from the competition in a unique precedent of its kind. The competition also lacks any Arab or African films, and any work that represents Hollywood cinema. The only American film participating in the competition is an independent film without stars, which is “Past Lives” by Korean director Celine Song, which was shown a few weeks ago at the Sundance Festival and was received with a standing ovation.

Perhaps the lack of geographical balance tells us that the festival’s management has set artistic taste only as a determinant for selecting films away from political calculations and the desire to please everyone. Nonetheless, this is a frustrating situation for numerous filmmakers in developing countries whose work was otherwise warmly welcomed at the Berlinale.

Regarding Arab cinema, for the first time, the Forum section for example is devoid of any long Arabic film, whether fictional or documentary. It used to be the section that showed several Arab films every year. So that the Arab presence in Berlinale is limited to two feature films in the panorama, two members of the jury, and two works in the extended Forum section.

Arab presence in Berlinale

At the forefront of the Arab participation comes the appearance of Yemeni cinema for the first time at Berlinale, with the screening of the movie "The Burdened" by Amr Gamal in the Panorama section. It is a story about a family living through the economic pressures of post-war Yemen. The wife discovers that she is carrying a new baby, so she decides with the father to terminate the pregnancy, only to discover that implementing the decision is not an easy matter, even if it is a logical decision aimed at protecting a child from suffering and a family from more pain.

As for the second Arab feature film in Berlinale, it is titled “Under the Sky of Damascus”, a documentary co-directed by Heba Khaled, Ali Wajih and Talal Derky (whose previous film “On Fathers and Sons” was nominated for an Academy Award). An unusual work that takes us to the dark side of the art industry in Syria, through the journey of a group of actresses who were subjected in their career to harassment and physical abuse that are not only related to masculinity, but also to the hierarchy of power within artworks in general.

Seven Arab talents were chosen this year to participate in the prestigious „Berlinale Talents“ programme

Egyptian director Ayten Amin is the only Arabic name on the official juries. She sits on the jury for the Best First Feature Award. The Egyptian critic Hossam Fahmy is a member of the jury of the international film critics association FIPRESCI, which evaluates the films in the Forum section. This is an additional prize that the Association awards to the four best films in the International Competition, Encounters, Panorama and Forum sections.

The works of two Egyptian artists were selected in the Forum Expanded section: the video installation "Borrowing a Family Album" mixes photographs and video recordings by the director Tamer El Said; there is also the short film “Simia: Stratagem for Undestining” by Assem Hendawi. These contributions correspond to the character of this section, which mixes different visual and literary art forms.

As for Berlinale Talents program, seven Arab talents were chosen this year to participate: the Palestinian actor Samer Bisharat, the Iraqi director Ali Karim, the Algerian director and photographer Zulekha Taher, the Tunisian producer and director Bilal Al-Othmini, the Tunisian director and author Charlie Coca, the Egyptian producer Kismat Al-Sayed, and the Egyptian director Sameh Alaa, who won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his short film "Stacher".

Two modifications to the system

Apart from the selections of the competition and the Arab participation, Berlinale remains a major meeting point in the annual cinema agenda. The Berlinale has its own "club" of regulars: critics, journalists and industry professionals. In these circles there has been an increasing exchange over the past few days about the expectations of the form of the new festival. As explained, it will be the first round that will take place again in the classic format with full audience capacity and without hygiene requirements. Nevertheless, there will be two important changes when visiting the festival, which already began during the two post-corona periods, but which can now be experienced by everyone for the first time.

The first change concerns the end of paper tickets and preferential entry to the press screenings for festival ticket holders. Access to all screenings, including press and industry screenings, is now open to all via an electronic reservation system. This started at the Cannes Film Festival in the summer of 2021 and drew mixed reactions. It ensures orderly participation and avoids long and for some futile queuing. At the same time, it leads to difficulties for older participants who are not used to electronic reservations. Not to mention the high user load on the reservation website at the beginning of each day.

The second change is that the CineStar halls, which have always been a central location for film screenings, are no longer available for the festival. Their closure is changing the map of press and market exposure. Everyone will have to rethink their plans for watching the films in line with this change.
All the above gives the anticipation of the new edition of Berlinale a conflicting mixture of feelings: a desire to enjoy a copy of the festival's classic format and an anticipation of changes in experience and film choices. What will be the result of this combination? We will find out in a few days.