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Berlin Film Festival Offers Political Awareness With Your Popcorn

People arrive on the red carpet for the screening of "The Grandmaster" at the Berlinale on February 7.
People arrive on the red carpet for the screening of "The Grandmaster" at the Berlinale on February 7.
One of the most widely anticipated films as this year's Berlin International Film Festival kicks off on February 7 is a tantalizing new work by Iranian director Jafar Panahi.

His film "Closed Curtain" will be shown on February 10 with very little advance word of what it is about. The description in the festival program hints merely that it concerns a man, his dog, a young woman, and a filmmaker in a house by the Caspian Sea. All are wanted by the authorities but also are in search of each other.

Even without advance publicity, Panahi's latest film is sure to draw a crowd because he made it in defiance of his government. In 2010, Panahi was banned for 20 years from making any films after he was arrested over his support of the Green Movement's opposition to the Iranian government.

Jafar Panahi
Jafar Panahi
He also received a six-year jail sentence that was suspended after an outcry from the international community. The European Parliament made him a co-winner of its prestigious Sakharov Prize, which honors free thought, in 2012.

Eagerly anticipated at the 11-day festival, too, is "Camille Claudel 1915," a French drama that tells the story of August Rodin’s lover Camille Claudel, who was committed to a mental institution.

Director Bruno Dumont's use of mentally handicapped actors is expected to make the film a hot topic of discussion.

Where Medium Meets Message

In addition to these celebrity entries are many little-known films from Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia, and Central Asia.

They come to the Berlinale because it offers one of the film world's best showcases for movies with a political or social message as well as artistic or commercial appeal.

"[The Berlinale] has a great tradition of having political awareness about the changes in the world and [the] important things in the world," Rada Sesic, a mentor in the master of film studies program at the Netherlands Film Academy in Amsterdam, says. "So it is a festival with a great tradition, even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the selectors for the festival would come to Eastern Europe and try to choose the most exciting films that were either significant for a certain society or forbidden in a certain society or whose filmmakers were dissidents living in the West and seeking shelter."

Zhang Ziyi in "The Grandmaster," which will open the Berlinale on February 7
Zhang Ziyi in "The Grandmaster," which will open the Berlinale on February 7
Sesic says the high degree of political awareness at the festival distinguishes it from the other major European film festivals.

"Venice has been known for the very profound artistic voice of the films being screened there," Sesic says, "while Cannes has been more open for big stars and big films and more American cinema."

The political and social bent of the Berlin festival is clearly evident in this year's entries from the Balkans. Among them are "Epizoda u zivotu beraca zeljeza," or "An Episode In The Life Of An Iron Picker," by Bosnian director Danis Tanovic. It offers a snapshot of the life of a Romany family -- a subject not frequently considered in European cinema.

Eastern Fare

There is strong political content in this year's entries from the Caucasus, as well. Among them is "In Bloom," a coming-of-age story set amid the recent history of Georgia's independence and the civil war in Abkhazia. It is a Georgian-German co-production by directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross.

Central Asia is represented by the Kazakh film "Harmony Lessons." In it, director Emir Baigazin tells the story of a 13-year-old boy who is taunted by his fellow pupils and must fight against marginalization.

Several films reflect the current social turmoil of their countries.

A film from Romania, "Child's Pose," confronts corruption as it tells the story of a domineering mother who tries to buy freedom for her son, who has run over and killed a child.

WATCH the official trailer from "Child's Pose":

From Iraq, "Happy Birthday" tells the story of a boy who visits his father's grave, a metaphor for the recent violent past of his homeland.

And among the films from Russia is "For Marx," which profiles the appalling working conditions in a metal factory. The film shines a spotlight on the struggle between the working class and the elite of Russia today.

WATCH the trailer for the Russian film "For Marx":

The Berlinale, now in its 63rd year, is the world's biggest film festival, with 404 films to be screened before it closes on February 17. Nineteen films have been selected to compete for the top honor -- the Golden Bear -- for best picture.

The festival opens with an epic martial arts drama, "The Grandmaster," from leading Chinese director Wong Kar Wai.

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