This is my third year at the Berlinale and two things about this festival continue to surprise me. One, is how punishing the cold is (in order to survive, one must look like a woollen burrito). The second, is how frankly political the festival is in its film selection. Then again, maybe I am easy to please in this department because I come from a country where Sexy Durga cannot get a public screening.
Whatever the reason, it is commendable that each year a festival of this scale and reputation makes space for films that can be termed ‘very political’, in that they reference, reflect or comment on contemporary issues fairly directly. For instance, last year, the festival opened with Étienne Comar’s Django, a story about an artist fleeing a totalitarian regime, which some said was a direct response to Donald Trump’s presidency. The Golden Bear winner was Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope, which featured a Syrian refugee as one of the two key characters.
At the 68th edition of the Berlinale, this trait became even more evident when festival director Dieter Kosslick announced a spotlight on the #MeToo movement. Announcing the lineup at the official festival press conference he said, “The international resonance of #MeToo quickly made clear that the problem isn’t limited to Hollywood. The Berlinale sees itself as a forum where problems can be aired and it will host a range of events that should contribute to concrete change.”
One could argue that it is a little gimmicky for film festivals to have a theme like this. They are not after all, birthday parties. And there is something a bit transient about picking hot button issues every year like a wedding planner who says Marsala is THE colour this season.
Film festival equivalent: 2017, “Oh that was the year of race”. 2016? “Has to be refugees.”
So, in lesser hands, the focus on #MeToo could have meant 3 snooze-inducing panel discussions and a lot of lip service. But Kosslick went on to say that the festival had actually rejected about 5 films whose creators had been accused of crimes against women (he refused to take names).
This is a tough and admirable stance to take for a film festival where so much rests on a few sought-after titles and where enfant terribles have typically been celebrated and even adored. But it’s easier said than done. Shortly after the announcement, the festival was accused of blatant hypocrisy by an actress (unidentified as per Korean laws) who had filed sexual and physical assault charges against acclaimed director Kim ki-duk. Kim’s film Human, Space, Time and Human plays in the Panorama section of the festival.
The festival director said the festival had rejected about 5 films whose creators had been accused of crimes against women. This is an admirable stance to take for a festival where so much rests on a few sought-after titles and where enfant terribles have typically been celebrated and even adored.
The facts of the case are ominously reminiscent of the recent accusations against Quentin Tarantino. In 2017, Kim was accused of sexual assault after he slapped the actress on the first day of filming his movie Moebius. Kim has accepted the charge. She was subsequently replaced. The case went to court and he was asked to pay a fine of KRW 5 million (about Rs 30 lakhs) for slapping the woman, but the sexual assault charge was dismissed.
On their part, the Berlinale released an official statement which defended their selection. It said, “Berlinale Panorama has decided to eschew prejudgment and will present Kim Ki-duk’s latest film ‘Human, Space, Time and Human’ in the 2018 Panorama program. However, the Berlinale condemns all kinds of violence on set — be it of sexual or other origin.”
Kim’s is not the only controversial choice at the Berlinale. Long before #MeToo, in 2010, when Roman Polanski was under house arrest in Switzerland for a case where he was convicted of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, the Berlinale awarded him (in absentia) the Best Director prize for his film The Ghost Writer.
Clearly if #MeToo has to truly permeate the film festival circuit, festivals will need to start by answering some tough questions about their own choices. As I write this, accusations of physical assault and abuse have resurfaced against another film festival darling, Michael Fassbender. This process of re-evaluating our erstwhile film favourites is not going to end anytime soon. So the real test of how far this global (and now film festival) commitment to #MeToo will go, is to just wait and see where the World Premiere of the next Woody Allen film will take place.