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Italian refugee doc wows Berlin film festival

A searing Italian documentary on Europe's refugee influx drew cheers Saturday at the Berlin film festival, which has rolled out the red carpet for pictures offering unique takes on the crisis.

Italian refugee doc wows Berlin film festival
A still taken from the Fire at Sea. Photo: Berlin Film Festival
“Fire at Sea” by award-winning director Gianfranco Rosi, set on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, emerged as an early favourite among 18 contenders for the festival's Golden Bear top prize, to be awarded by jury president Meryl Streep on February 20.
   
The film provides an unflinching look at the thousands of desperate people who arrive on the island each year trying to enter the European Union, and the thousands more who have died trying.
   
But Rosi, who spent several months on Lampedusa making the documentary, also offers a tender portrait of the rhythms of daily life in Lampedusa's ancient fishing villages and efforts of local people to help those in need.
   
“It bears witness to a tragedy that is happening right before our eyes,” Rosi told reporters following a enthusiastically received press preview.
   
“I think we are all responsible for that tragedy and perhaps after the Holocaust, it is the greatest tragedy we have ever seen in Europe.”
   
The picture is told through the eyes of a 12-year-old local boy, Samuele Pucillo, and a doctor, Pietro Bartolo, who has been tending to the often dehydrated, malnourished and traumatised new arrivals for a quarter-century.
   
Rosi, who clinched the Venice film festival's 2013 Golden Lion for his film “Sacro GRA”, also accompanied coastguard rescue missions answering the terrified SOS calls of people on overcrowded boats, most of them arriving from Libya.
   
They are taken to a reception centre for medical examinations and processing while awaiting transfer to other sites in Italy.
   
Rosi captures the migrants' overwhelming relief to be on dry land, the shock that gives way to mourning for their dead, and the crushing boredom they break up with rough-and-tumble football games.
 
In one powerful scene, a Nigerian man recounts the perilous journey to Italy in a call-and-response chant with other African migrants, describing what was for many a deadly trek through the scorching Sahara, and the suffering endured at the hands of Islamic State jihadists and prison guards in Libya.
   
Bartolo, the doctor, said that he hoped the film would open more Europeans' eyes to the plight visible in Lampedusa every day, as the political debate grows more entrenched.
   
“I've seen so many terrible things, so many dead children, so many dead women, so many raped women. These things leave you with a great big empty hole in your stomach,” he said.
   
“These are nightmares that haunt me very often.”
   
Tim Robey of London's Daily Telegraph called the film “pertinent, humane” and “shattering” on Twitter, while Kate Muir of the Times pronounced it “brilliant”.
   
Festival director Dieter Kosslick said ahead of the festival that a single theme ran through much of the selection this year: “the right to happiness — the right to a home, to love, to self-determination, to life and to survival”.
   
Hollywood star George Clooney and his wife Amal, a Lebanese-born human rights lawyer, used the occasion of the festival to offer their backing and assistance to Chancellor Angela Merkel in a meeting at her office Friday, after Germany let in 1.1 million asylum seekers last year.
   
The 11-day cinema showcase is also featuring around a dozen films shining a light on the crisis in various ways.
   
German documentary “Havarie” traces the fate of a small rickety refugee boat in the Mediterranean, spotted by a tourist who made a mobile phone video from a cruise ship.
   
Danish film “Those Who Jump” hands the camera to a Malian migrant trapped in the high-security border facility between the EU and Africa as he and hundreds of other would-be asylum seekers plot their next move.
   
And Syrian-Iraqi production “Life of the Border” allowed eight children in a refugee camp in the Kurdish Syrian town of Kobane to film their own stories.
   
The festival runs until February 21.

FILM

Venice Film Festival fights for impact amid coronavirus curbs and cancellations

What if you threw a film festival and nobody came?

Venice Film Festival fights for impact amid coronavirus curbs and cancellations
File photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP
That, in essence, is the challenge facing organisers of this year's Venice Film Festival, the glamorous annual competition where stars, critics, photographers and industry executives mingle on the bustling Lido, overlooking sandy beaches and the blue Adriatic.
   
Provided, of course, it's a normal year.
   
But in 2020, the world's oldest film festival is forced to walk a tightrope between preserving its lustre as the premier launch pad for Academy Award-winning films, while safely navigating the coronavirus crisis and averting the controversy over gender inequality that has dogged it in the past.
   
Opening Wednesday and continuing until September 12, the prestigious event now in its 77th year will be the first international film festival since the pandemic shuttered competitions around the world.
   
It has put in place a host of safety measures — from limited seating to thermal scanners, to a fan-free red carpet — to protect attendees as Covid-19 cases continue to climb in Italy and around the world.
   
In July, festival director Alberto Barbera declared the event “saved” as he announced the 18 films among the approximately 60 presented that would vie for the top award, the Golden Lion.
 
  
He promised that the festival would preserve the “liveliness of contemporary cinema”.
   
Despite its scaled-down size with theatre capacity reduced by about half, La Biennale di Venezia takes on greater importance this year due to the cancellation of rival film festivals across the globe, among them the glitzy Cannes Film Festival on the Cote d'Azur in France.
 
 
But just days ahead of the opening, organisers are scrambling to navigate uncharted territory amid uncertain attendance and last-minute cancellations.     
   
Whereas Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep and Scarlett Johansson provided the star firepower at last year's festival, ongoing travel restrictions — especially a travel ban from the United States into Europe — mean that most Hollywood elites will be no shows, along with actors and directors from China, India and South America.
   
Those arriving from outside Europe's Schengen zone will have to submit results of a Covid-19 test just before their departure, with a second test carried out in Venice, meaning that some attendees may have to cancel.
   
Earlier this week, the festival announced that American actor Matt Dillon would be a last-minute substitute on the jury for Romanian director Crisit Puiu.
   
No reason was given for Puiu's absence, but industry trade magazines noted he had given a speech earlier this month in which he said it was “inhumane” to watch movies with a mask on.
   
Those confirmed as attending include, among others, British actress Tilda Swinton, Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, US director Oliver Stone and Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen.
 
 
 
More women directors
 
The uncertain lineup of stars and dearth of top names leaves Australian actress Cate Blanchett, president of the jury, to take up the mantle of celebrity — and social activism — at Venice.
   
Blanchett was the leader of the #MeToo women's march up the red carpet steps at Cannes two years ago that sought to bring attention to the lack of parity and diversity in cinema.
   
The presence of Blanchett helps raise such awareness while the festival seeks to stanch criticism levelled in recent years over the glaring lack of women directors in festivals' top lineups.
 
The Oscar-winning headliner told Variety magazine on Thursday that this year's eight women directors in the main competition lineup of Venice is “a direct response to the positive advances that have been made this year”.
   
Others say it is too early to tell whether a page has turned.
   
“It's all about being consistent and diligent and believing that women make movies as well as men, and using that in the way you programme,” said Melissa Silverstein, founder and publisher of “Women and Hollywood”, which advocates for gender diversity and inclusion in film.
   
Last year's festival opened under controversy after the inclusion in the lineup of French-Polish director Roman Polanski, who fled the United States after his 1977 conviction of rape of a 13-year-old girl.
   
There were also only two female directors in the selection. In both 2018 and 2017, only one female director was represented.   
 
Blanchett said more was riding on the jury's decisions this year, given the limited opportunities for filmmakers to show their work publicly, due to the coronavirus closures.
   
“So, whatever the deliberations the jury will make will be more impactful. I don't take that responsibility or privilege lightly.”
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