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Germany: Berlin Film Festival Gets Under Way

Movie stars are descending on the German capital as one of Europe's annual cultural highlights, the Berlin International Film Festival, opens today. Nearly 400 films from 44 countries are competing for cinema-goers' attention and the judges' top prize.

Prague, 5 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The red carpet will be rolled out tonight on Marlene Dietrich Platz in Berlin as the city's 54th International Film Festival opens with a screening of the acclaimed American Civil War drama "Cold Mountain."

The film's stars, Nicole Kidman and Jude Law, will be on hand for the gala opening, along with director Anthony Minghella. But the movie, which has already received seven Oscar nominations in the United States, has not been entered as an official contender in the festival competition.

Instead, 23 other feature-length films will be competing for the prestigious Golden Bear prize, which will be awarded at the festival's close on 14 February. A principal focus of this year's competition is on films from Latin American and South Africa, to mark the 10th anniversary of free elections following the end of apartheid in that country.

From South America, Golden Bear contenders include "Lost Embrace" by Daniel Burman, about an Argentine son tracking his missing father and a U.S.-Colombian co-production called "Maria Full of Grace."

Famed South African director John Boorman will present his new feature, titled "Country of My Skull," about an American journalist's encounter with the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The film stars Samuel L. Jackson and Juliette Binoche.

Other continents, including Europe, will also be well-represented. Cult British filmmakers Ken Loach and Peter Greenaway will both be screening their latest films. Also from Europe, Fatih Akin presents "Head On," a movie about second-generation Turkish immigrants in Germany. A Croatian film entitled "Svedoci" ("Witnesses"), by director Vinko Bresan, is the only entry this year from Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union that is competing for the main prize.

Last year's Golden Bear winner was British director Michael Winterbottom's "In This World," the story of two Afghan refugees living on the Pakistani border.

Aside from the main competition, however, which garners the most media attention, almost 400 films will be screened in Berlin as part of the larger festival, in front of different juries.

Among the most eagerly awaited sections is the International Forum of New Cinema, which will showcase 40 films, including two from Russia and one by a Bosnian director. Stephanie Schulte-Strathaus, one of nine jury members for this special competition, spoke to RFE/RL about the event.

"It started as an alternative to the main competition program at the Berlin Film Festival, and it was a place and still is a place for all kinds of more political, independent, experimental filmmaking from all over the world. We do have a kind of competition, so there are awards given to forum films as well," Schulte-Strathaus said.

The forum is a chance for directors who have not yet cemented their international reputations to become better known, meet with producers and secure distribution contracts around the world.

The 2004 forum competition will showcase "Koktebel," by Russian filmmakers Boris Khlebnikov and Aleksei Popogrebskii. The film is a soul-searching account of a father and son's trip to the Black Sea town of Koktebel following the breakup of their household as well as "All the Truth About the Schelps" by Alexei Muradov, which tells the story of three friends, all in their 40s, who are reunited during a funeral and subsequently share their experiences of their uneasy lives in post-Soviet Russia.

Schulte-Strathaus also highlights a bold film by young director Nina Kusturica, who was born in Mostar in 1975 but emigrated to Austria at the age of 17 to flee the Bosnian war. Her movie, entitled "Signs of Siege," deals with the often taboo topic of domestic violence.
23 other feature-length films will be competing for the prestigious Golden Bear prize, which will be awarded at the festival's close on 14 February.

"It's a very strong film about very different situations and about what I would say is still -- at least here in Western Europe -- the very hidden problem of violence in families. It shows that it really doesn't matter from which social context people come from -- it exists everywhere, among rich people, among poor people, upper class, and lower-class people. And it's about how women try to get out of these marriages," Schulte-Strathaus said.

Schulte-Strathaus says she does not believe international interest in movies from former Communist Eastern Europe has waned, despite this year's modest number of entries from the region. As with wine, she notes, some years are just better than others.

"I wouldn't say that there is less interest -- not at all. For me, my impression was that it just happened this year that we didn't find so many interesting films. But I think it would be wrong to say that there is nothing. Maybe it was just this year. But I know that there is a lot going on [in the region] and I really could imagine that it would be totally different again next year," Schulte-Strathaus said.

Or maybe even in three months, when Cannes, the largest film festival in Europe, reopens its doors.