How the Berlinale is integrating refugees | Film | DW | 18.02.2016
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How the Berlinale is integrating refugees

The Berlinale isn't just talking about refugees, it's inviting them to participate. The film festival has offered refugees free tickets to movie showings, backstage insights and employment opportunities.

How did he like the film? Kheir Allah Sweid chuckles because he's prepared for the question. Two TV crews and a radio reporter have already asked him the same thing.

"We joked about who's had more interview requests: jury president Meryl Streep or Kheir," says Anna Hartmann, his Berlinale guide. Anna is one of 200 volunteers who are going to Berlinale film showings with small groups of refugees.

Sweid says he prefers action films, adding ironically that he also likes "refugee films."

"We have enough action in Syria, more than we'd like."

Kheir Allah Sweid and Anna Hartmann had received complimentary tickets to see "Fuocoammare." The documentary blatantly depicts the high-risk oversea journeys many refugees undertake from North Africa to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Sweid, a Palestinian from Syria, can relate. He survived a perilous boat journey from Turkey to Greece some five months ago. "That was really dangerous, the ocean was very stormy," remembers the 25-year-old.

The dangers of ocean journeys

Anna Hartmann looks at him with concern. She met Sweid four months ago at Berlin's point of entry for refugees, which has been harshly criticized for its long wait times and chaotic circumstances.

Sweid and a friend were stranded there at nightfall and Hartmann, who works for the German-Arab Center for Education and Integration, offered her help. The two have stayed in touch since then. "His wife is still in Turkey," says Hartmann, 34. "She still has to make the boat trip."

Anna Hartmann and Kheir Allah Sweid giving interviews at the Berlinale, Copyright: DW/N. Wojcik

Anna Hartmann and Kheir Allah Sweid gave as many interviews as Meryl Streep - almost

Sweid nods. "We talk on the phone every day. We are waiting because the ocean is very turbulent right now."

"Fuocoammare" includes dramatic scenes in which refugees suffer from thirst and even die in overcrowded boats. "That hit really close to home for him - and for me, too, but it really shook him up," says Hartmann of Sweid.

Sweid plays it down: "Of course it's bad. But we're not afraid. We've lost everything and we have nothing more to lose."

He says it's important that such films are made. "People have to hear about it," he comments, adding that he hopes reports won't only focus on refugees' journeys. "We want to live in peace, nothing more."

Talking with refugees - not just about them

Some 40 aid organizations have teamed up with the Berlinale for their first-ever refugee project, including the Berlin Red Cross, "Moabit hilft," "Arbeitskreis Asyl," and other groups.

The idea is to pair up refugees with volunteers at film showings, so they don't only have the chance to watch movies free of charge, but also to make contacts.

"We've had a lot of positive feedback," says Berlinale administrator Adrienne Boros. "For many, it's an opportunity to get to know cultural life in Berlin, but also to travel on screen back to their home countries."

Anna Hartmann grew up in Berlin and remembers visiting Berlinale events as a child. "This year, the main topic is migration, so it wouldn't be acceptable to exclude the people that the films are about."

Mudar El Sheich is pictured (center) in the food truck he works in at the Culinary Cinema section, Copyright: DW/N. Wojcik

Mudar El Sheich is pictured (center) in the food truck he works in at the Culinary Cinema section

The official motto of the Berlinale this year is "The right to be happy" and the festival is largely focusing on films tied to expulsion, migration and refugees. Festival director Dieter Kosslick told German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk that he feels the German cultural scene bears a special responsibility because, after World War II, so many Germans were forced to flee and rely on the help of others.

A chance to work at Berlinale

In a separate project targeting refugees, the Berlinale is also offering traineeships. Eighteen participants from Afghanistan, Guinea, Iraq, Mali, the Palestinian territories and Syria have been invited to gain work experience at the festival. In cooperation with the German government offices for refugees and immigrants, the young participants are helping out in the various departments of the large film festival, in the press office at the lost-and-found, at the accreditation desk and in the cinemas.

The Berlinale has said it plans to offer refugees employment opportunities even beyond the festival.

Food truck at the Culinary Cinema section, Copyright: DW/N. Wojcik

Food meets film at the Berlinale - and encourages international networking

Mudar El Sheich is one of the trainees in the program and works at a food truck set up as part of the Culinary Cinema section. Originally from Aleppo, El Sheich was an Arabic teacher and has lived in Berlin for over a year.

"I liked the idea," he said of Culinary Cinema. "I've met a lot of people, from Egypt or Iran, for example, and gotten to know their cultures."

Together with Sardinian star cook Roberto Petza and his team, El Sheich has been whipping up dishes like pasta or hummus each day. He hasn't been able to see many films, but enjoys his interaction with the visitors.

"I'm getting to know people from all over the world and I'm glad that they want to know more about our project," says El Sheich in nearly perfect German.

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