Berlin Film Fest leaves empty chair for Panahi

Though the kick-off film is True Grit by the Coen brothers, the Berlin International Film Festival diverted some of its opening-day spotlight to Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi.
The jury members of the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival pose beside an empty chair marking the place of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. Seen, from left, in Berlin on Thursday are Jan Chapman, Aamir Khan, Nina Hoss, Isabella Rossellini, Sandy Powell and Guy Maddin. ((Sean Gallup/Getty Images))

Though the kick-off film is True Grit by the Coen brothers, the Berlin International Film Festival diverted some of its opening-day spotlight to Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi.

Panahi is an official member of the 2011 Berlinale jury, but Iran has barred him from leaving his homeland, preventing his attendance at the festival, which opened Thursday.

"We are still hoping that he will be able to come. We haven't given up," said Italian-American actress Isabella Rossellini, this year's jury president, at Thursday's opening news conference.

"He is a very big presence even though he is not here," she said. Rossellini said the festival wanted to include Panahi in absentia as a reminder that "freedom of speech is at the base of freedom of art and filmmaking."

Panahi won a Silver Bear at the 2006 edition of the Berlinale for Offside, about Iranian girls who disguise themselves as boys so they can attend a soccer match.

The comedy and four other of his films will be screened in Berlin this year in tribute.

Iranian authorities have targeted the director and activist for "conspiring against the ruling system" and for making a film about the unrest following the disputed re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. He was barred from leaving the country, making films or talking to media for the next 20 years.

Berlinale organizers joined a chorus of international voices protesting the decision.

Jury members —  Rossellini, Jan Chapman, Aamir Khan, Nina Hoss, Sandy Powell and Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin — left a seat empty for Panahi, whose acclaimed films include Offside, The Circle and Crimson Gold.

True Grit, from U.S. directors Joel and Ethan Coen, brought some Hollywood glamour to the festival, with stars Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld and Josh Brolin joining them in Berlin. Though the western remake is the opening night selection, it screens out of competition after having been released theatrically in North America.

Altogether, 16 films will vie for Berlin's top prize, the Golden Bear. Contenders include British actor Ralph Fiennes' directorial debut Coriolanus, the financial thriller Margin Call from J.C. Chandor and Tales of the Night, French filmmaker Michel Ocelot's silhouette animation 3D film.

3D technology will also be highlighted through screenings of Werner Herzog's documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Pima, a 3D dance film honouring late choreographer Pina Bausch, created by her longtime friend Wim Wenders.

Canadians in Berlin

Along with serving on the official jury, Maddin will see his installations Hauntings I and Hauntings II displayed in Berlin. Works by a number of other Canadians filmmakers will be showcased in different festival programs:

  • Shorts: Green Crayons (director Kazik Radwanski); Women Waiting (director Antoine Bourges).
  • Panorama: Vampire (director Iwai Shunji).
  • Forum: Familiar Grounds (director Stéphane Lafleur).
  • Forum (Short): National Parks Project: Sirmilik (director Zacharias Kunuk).
  • Forum (Installation): A Bar IST a Garden IST a Café IST a Reading Room (director Kika Thorne).
  • Generation Kplus: Mabul (director Guy Nattiv).
  • Generation Kplus (Short): Mokhtar (director Halima Ouardiri); Sunday (director Patrick Doyon); The Legend of Beaver Dam (director Jerome Sable); Wapawekka (director Danis Goulet).

The 61st Berlin International Film Festival continues through Feb. 20.

With files from The Associated Press