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Film

Why the Berlinale can claim to be a political festival

As refugees have been the issue of the year, Berlin's upcoming International Film Festival will also focus on their stories. It's not just a politically correct trend: The event's social commitment has deep roots.

This year, Berlin's International Film Festival will focus on the fate of refugees. It's definitely not the first time the event explores current issues. Offering a platform for social and political reflections is a deeply-rooted tradition of the festival: "It basically belongs to the Berlinale's DNA," has often said the director of the event, Dieter Kosslick.

When the Berlinale was created 66 years ago, there were also millions of Germans seeking asylum or traumatized by expulsion throughout Europe. The film festival has since tasked itself with promoting tolerance and understanding between cultures.

Dieter Kosslick, director of the Berlinale, Copyright: Getty Images/AFP/O. Andersen

He's been proudly directing this festival with political roots since 2001: Dieter Kosslick

In comparison to other major European festivals, the Berlinale has always been a political festival, to a point that it has sometimes been accused of focusing more on the social relevance of films than on their aesthetic qualities. There might be some truth to this. The winners of the Golden and Silver Bears these last years have often been more "politically important" than artistically innovative.

Film meets reality in Berlin

The Berlinale has always boasted diversity in its program. Beyond the competition, its various sections feature each year documentaries, political film essays and socially-committed feature films. Marginalized groups of society get their say at the event, especially through movies revealing their concerns and hardships - and many of them focused on refugees as well.

Since he became the director of the festival in 2001, Dieter Kosslick says the "moment where the utopia of reality and cinema collided the most intensely" occurred on the last day of the festival in 2003. That year, the jury was led by Atom Egoyan, a Canadian director with Armenian roots, and the Golden Bear went to Michael Winterbottom's film "In this World." The movie was about three Afghans fleeing their war-torn country. "At the same time, over 400,000 people were demonstrating against the invasion of Iraq around Potsdamer Platz. That day, the Berlinale was literally 'in this world'," remembers Kosslick.

Berlinale Jury 2016, Copyright: Michael Kappeler/dpa

They will decide on this year's Golden Bear: The 2016 jury, led by Meryl Streep

Several Berlinale winners reflect this dialogue between film and reality, culture and politics. In 2006, the Golden Bear was given to "Grbavica," a Bosnian drama on the traumas of war in Sarajevo. Last year, the award went to "Taxi," which Jafar Panahi filmed secretly despite being banned from working in Iran. "It is not only a courageous work," said Kosslick, "but one that expresses the right to freedom of expression in a magnificent artistic form."

Refugees welcome

This year's motto, "the right to happiness," which includes all fundamental rights, could have applied to previous programs as well, but this year has been shaped by the arrival of 79,034 refugees in Berlin, which is why the film festival also wanted to participate in the city's welcoming culture.

Film still Death in Sarajevo - Copyright: Margo Cinema & SCCA/pro.ba

This political film is part of the competition: "Death in Sarajevo," on the assassination that led to World War I

Different initiatives are planned: Donations will be collected and special access to events will be organized for refugees. A Berlin refugee initiative will also be sharing their international culinary culture.

Along with glamour and stars on the red carpet, refugees will remain a focus of the festival throughout the coming days. Culture and politics will keep meeting in Berlin's films theaters - it's simply in the Berlinale's DNA.

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