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World: Politics Takes Front Seat At Berlin Film Festival

A scene from "The Road To Guantanamo," which will be making its world premiere in this year's Berlinale. (Courtesy Photo) Films with serious social and political themes dominate the offerings at this year's Berlin film festival. There are various theories as to why that is, but most observers agree that the trend away from "popcorn blockbusters" looks set to continue.

PRAGUE, 9 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- One of the world's top film showcases, the Berlin film festival, opened on 9 February -- and politics is taking a front seat.

"Syriana," starring George Clooney as a CIA agent involved in the dirty oil politics of the Middle East, is just one of several prominent films with political or Middle East themes being screened at this year's festival, which is commonly known as the Berlinale.

Another is "Road to Guantanamo," by British director Michael Winterbottom, which has its world premiere in Berlin on 14 February.

The film blends interviews and drama to trace three friends' journey from provincial Britain to the U.S prison for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay. It promises to be controversial, as the men have claimed they were beaten during their detention.

'Brave' Themes Covered

There is, of course, more to the Berlinale than politics. The festival this year features several films about football, including one of two Iranian films, "Offside." The other, "Zemestan," depicts ordinary life in Iran. Both are competing for the festival's top prize, the Golden Bear.

But overall there's a somber feel, with other films tackling topics like rape ("The Free Will") and drug addiction ("Candy").

"This is a political festival," says actress Charlotte Rampling, who is leading the festival jury this year. "This is a festival that talks about brave things and mirrors them to the world. It talks about things that are covered, and the films [uncover] them, so that public opinion can have a look at things perhaps [people] knew little about or had different feelings about."

Film critics say this is part of a wider trend.

Many big movies, whether from Hollywood or elsewhere, are tackling political or other serious issues.

Among them are the gay romance "Brokeback Mountain," and "Good Night and Good Luck," about television journalism in the midst of the anti-communist witch-hunts of 1950s America.

These are two of five films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards in the United States, all five of which take on serious topics.

A Reflection Of Current Events

"Hollywood has been tackling issues like this and continues to do so," says Leon Forde, deputy features editor at the film magazine "Screen International."

"But to have five pictures that demonstrate a political bent is quite a trend."

A scene from "The Road To Guantanamo (courtesy photo)Another Oscar nominee -- for best foreign film -- is "Paradise Now," about two Palestinian youths intent on becoming suicide bombers.

And in "Munich," Steven Spielberg traces the assassins allegedly hired by Israel to track down those responsible for killing Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Andy Lowe, reviews editor for "Total Film," says both of these films try to explore what motivates people to resort to extreme violence.

That is timely, he believes. "There's a scene [in Munich] where the leader of the Israeli hit squad is talking to a Palestinian terrorist," Lowe says. "The Palestinian guy says, 'it doesn't matter how many of us you kill, you can't kill an idea.' That's pretty much the central debate in the world at the moment, in terms of the war on terror and the idea that somebody can be politicized to violence."

The End Of Shameless Moviemaking?

That suggests a possible reason for the current trend -- the films are reflecting people's concerns about the real world, such as the war on terror, oil politics, and the intransigence of the Middle East conflict.

Or there could be a simpler explanation. "Film movements ebb and flow," Lowe says. "We've just had quite a few years of shameless blockbuster entertainment, and I guess you get to the end of a cycle where you've run out ideas and things to plunder, so filmmakers tend to look more to subjects with a bit more substance."

The current trend of prominent, serious cinema looks set to continue, for now at least.

There are two films in the offing about 11 September, Hollywood's first major pictures about the terrorist attacks of 2001.

But after that, Lowe suggests, filmmakers are likely to "lighten up" a bit.