Berlin Film Festival brings Israeli-Palestinian tensions and other issues into the spotlight

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BERLIN (AP) — The 74th Berlin International Film Festival opens Thursday with the world premiere of “Small Things Like These” starring man of the moment Cillian Murphy.

Murphy, a front runner at next month’s Oscars for his turn in “Oppenheimer,” plays a coal merchant in 1980s Ireland who uncovers shocking secrets kept by the convent in his town. Based on an Irish novel, the drama reunites Murphy with “Peaky Blinders” director Tim Mielants and co-stars Eileen Walsh, Michelle Fairley and Emily Watson. The film explores Ireland’s Magdalene laundries, Catholic-run institutions from the 18th to the late 20th century intended to reform those deemed “fallen women.”

Politics is never far from the agenda at the Berlinale, but it’s the ongoing war in Gaza that is likely to spark debate and demonstrations. Festival directors Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian, who will step down after this year, expressed their aim for “open dialogue” surrounding the war. When they introduced this year’s program, they said they were “concerned to see that antisemitism, anti-Muslim resentment and hate speech are spreading in Germany and around the world.”

Plenty of films and documentaries this year support this desire for dialogue, including the documentary “No Other Land.” It’s about Israeli settler violence in the West Bank and the unlikely friendship that develops between a Palestinian activist and an Israeli journalist, directed by a Palestinian-Israeli collective.

The Berlinale has also partnered with social activists to create the “Tiny Space” project, with a small, intimate cabin set up for several days near the red carpet where festival attendees can discuss and debate the crisis in the Middle East.

But these efforts haven’t stopped some, including Ghanaian director Ayo Tsalithaba and Indian American artist Suneil Sanzgiri, from withdrawing their films from the festival in protest of Germany’s support for Israel.

Meanwhile the festival, which has long championed Iranian directors, has made a plea to Tehran to allow directing duo Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha to attend this year. They are due to present their new movie “My Favourite Cake” but face a travel ban by Iranian authorities. The Berlinale said in a statement that they have had their passports revoked and face a court trial in relation to their work as artists and filmmakers. The film, which will compete for the top prize, the Golden Bear, tells the story of a woman who decides to live out her desires in a country where women’s rights are heavily restricted. The duo’s previous film, “Ballad of a White Cow,” premiered in competition in Berlin in 2021.

Politics are at play again when it comes to the festival guest list. Last week, organizers uninvited representatives of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, to the opening gala. Five AfD politicians had been expected because members of all parties in Berlin’s state legislature are invited to events that are supported with public money. In recent weeks, Germany has seen large protests against the far right following a report that extremists met to discuss deporting millions of immigrants, including some with German citizenship, and that some members of AfD were present.

The festival said in a statement that “the AfD and many of its members and representatives hold views that are deeply contrary to the fundamental values of democracy.” The leader of AfD’s Berlin branch, Kristin Brinker, accused the festival of bowing to pressure from “cultural policy activists.” She argued that artists stand up for “freedom, for diversity and for plurality” but that festival organizers were doing the opposite.

Kenyan-Mexican actor Lupita Nyong’o will serve as the Berlinale’s first black jury president at this year’s festival. The Oscar winner will be joined on the jury by actor-directors Brady Corbet and Jasmine Trinca and directors Ann Hui, Christian Petzold and Albert Serra alongside Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko.

Last year’s jury head Kristen Stewart will return to Berlin with ’80s thriller “Love Lies Bleeding,” a tale of bodybuilding, crime and revenge. Other eclectic titles starring big names include Adam Sandler as a lonely astronaut in “Spaceman,” based on a Czech novel; Stephen Fry and Lena Dunham as father and daughter in “Treasure” on a road trip through post-communist Poland; and Marvel’s Sebastian Stan is unrecognizable in psycho thriller “A Different Man” as an actor who is transformed by facial reconstruction surgery.

Martin Scorsese will receive an honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement at a ceremony on Feb. 20. Isabelle Huppert will return to Berlin to collect her unclaimed lifetime achievement from 2022, when the French acting icon could not attend. She returns this year with the movie “A Traveler’s Needs” from South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo.

The festival runs through Feb. 25.

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