Meenakshi Shedde: Is Berlin fest just for films?

Some film festivals see their aim as showcasing the best films worldwide; others flaunt figures by way of number of delegates and film sales. I am lucky to be working as South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival since 18 years: the festival sees itself as part of a larger vision, and actively participates in socio-political issues.

A still from Jafar Panahi’s film Tehran Taxi
A still from Jafar Panahi’s film Tehran Taxi

Back home, the Mumbai Film Festival, headed by Anupama Chopra, sent a strong signal of its liberal beliefs by choosing Aligarh — which addresses homosexuality — as its opening film. As Germany saw a massive influx of over 1 million new asylum seekers from Syria and elsewhere in 2015, the Berlin Film Festival, that currently runs from February 11-21, has unequivocally advocated welcoming the refugees. This is remarkable, given how right-wingers worldwide are associating the refugee influx with perpetrators of terror, rather than its victims.

The Berlin Film Festival has traditionally been one of the most political A-list festivals — in its choice of beliefs, films and awards. For instance, Iranian director Jafar Panahi who has been under “house arrest” and banned from making movies since 2010 for his political dissent-was on the Berlinale’s International Jury in absentia in 2011, and his Taxi won the Golden Bear award, again in absentia, in 2015.

The International Forum of New Cinema, the more experimental section of the festival, showed Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution, a powerful documentary on the Gujarat riots of 2002, in which over 2,000 Muslims were butchered — in a three-hour and 40-minute version in 2003. The film was strong; no Indian theatre or TV channel wanted to touch the film — but Berlin stood by it.

The Berlinale’s Festival Director Dieter Kosslick wrote an editorial on how he sees the role of festivals as improving understanding between nations, lobbying and entertaining. When the festival started in 1951, he wrote, Germany was in ruins in the aftermath of both World War II and the Holocaust, during which millions of refugees suffered and fled. He reminds those opposing refugee rehabilitation now, that without millions of immigrant ‘guest workers’, Germany’s post-war economic miracle would not have been possible. Accordingly, the Berlinale is encouraging donations to the Berlin Center for Torture Victims (which supports refugees), offering refugees free movie tickets, and arranging for volunteers to escort them to screenings. The Panorama section of the festival, headed by Wieland Speck, stands for artistic films, but also leads the Berlinale in lobbying for gay rights. The festival also has a differently-abled inclusive policy, with theatre ramps, and films enabled for the blind and the deaf.

As for India at the Berlinale, we have two films this year — Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat (Wild, Marathi) and Jayaraj Nair’s Ottaal (The Trap, Malayalam), both superb films in the Generation section for children and young adults. Sairat explores a love story between teenagers in rural Maharashtra that feels the full force of India’s brutal caste system. Jayaraj’s Ottaal, a lyrical adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s short story Vanka, evokes the tender relationship between a small boy and his ageing grandfather, a duck farmer in Kerala, who is forced to give up the boy as child labour in a fireworks factory. The film has already won two National Awards, the Kerala State Award for Best Film, the Mumbai Film Festival’s Golden Gateway of India, and four awards at the International Film Festival of Kerala-Best Film, the FIPRESCI Jury Award, Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC) Award for Best Malayalam Film and Audience Award.

There is major Indian talent participating in Berlin this year. Nagesh Kukunoor is on the Generation KPlus International Jury (for children). Moreover, there is a wide range of Indian talent at the Berlinale Talents, which offers specialised mentoring. The talents include actress Niharika Singh, directors Pankaj Kumar, Gitanjali Rao, Sange Dorjee Thongdok and Abhay Kumar; editor Manas Mittal, cinematographer Ramanuj Dutta, production designer Vandana Kataria, music composer Alokananda Dasgupta and distributor Tanmayee Deo.

In addition, Arati Kadav’s Echo, backed by Guneet Monga’s Sikhya Entertainment, has been selected in the Berlinale Co-production Market, to raise production funds. Likewise, Sydney-based Partho Sen- Gupta’s Slam, is in the Rotterdam-Berlinale Express co-production section. N Pushpamala presents her film Hygiene/Swachh in the Forum Expanded section’s ‘Traversing the Phantasm’ group installation. In all, the Berlinale offers many plug points for absorbing film energy.

Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at

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