Gaza war sparks tensions

Person in a red hoodie in front of a destroyed house – The documentary film "No Other Land" was shot by a Palestinian-Israeli collective
The award-winning documentary film "No Other Land" was made by a Palestinian-Israeli collective (image: Berlinale)

The Berlin International Film Festival is no stranger to politics. The Middle East conflict was bound to cause debates and protests this year

By Elizabeth Grenier

The Berlinale is renowned as a film festival that tackles political issues and advocates for humanitarian values. Debates and protests surrounding the Israel-Hamas war were inevitably expected to be part of this year's event.

While a few "Free Gaza" signs were spotted on the red carpet, the opening gala on February 15 was held without disruption.

Then on Sunday, rather unexpectedly, some 50 pro-Palestinian supporters staged a protest at the European Film Market, according to reports by The film market has close links with the festival, but unlike the many red carpet premieres at the Berlinale, the business platform is restricted to film industry professionals and is therefore not in the public spotlight.

The directors of "No Other Land" (from left to right): Yuval Abraham, Hamdan Ballal, Rachel Szor and Basel Adra stand in front of a wall bearing the Berlinale inscription
The directors of "No Other Land" (from left to right): Yuval Abraham, Hamdan Ballal, Rachel Szor and Basel Adra (image: Monika Skolimowska/dpa/picture alliance)

Berlinale staff call for stronger statement

Criticism also came from within the festival's organisation itself. An open letter, currently signed by 60 Berlinale contractors – including curators of various sections of the festival – has called on the festival to sharpen its official statement on the current humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

When they presented their programme, the Berlinale's management duo, Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian, emphasised that their sympathy goes out to all victims of the crises in the Middle East, and that they want "everyone's suffering to be recognised and for our programme to open up different perspectives on the complexity of the world."

For the signatories, however, this was not enough. "We join a global solidarity movement to demand an immediate cease-fire and call for the release of all hostages," the letter states. 

"As the world bears witness to an inconceivable loss of civilian life in Gaza – including those of journalists, artists, and film workers – as well as the destruction of unique cultural heritage, we need stronger institutional stances."

A woman in black ties up a headscarf, another woman stands behind her - film still from "Shikun" with Bahira Ablassi (front) and Irene Jacob
Film still from "Shikun" with Bahira Ablassi (front) and Irène Jacob (image: Agav Films)

'Strike Germany' movement calls for boycotts

Another open letter came from participants of the Forum Expanded section, one of the festival's independently curated programmes. Seen as a more experimental section of the Berlinale, Forum Expanded reflects on film as a medium through a broad range of artistic disciplines.

The more than 100 signatories of this letter expressed their support for four colleagues who withdrew their works from the selection ahead of the event. These four artists cited on Instagram their solidarity with the "Strike Germany" movement, which calls for a boycott of state-sponsored cultural institutions in Germany, in protest at the country's reluctance to call for a ceasefire.

Meanwhile, Israeli filmmakers present at the festival have not shied away from criticising their country's government. Renowned Israeli director Amos Gitai premiered his new feature at the Berlinale, "Shikun". The politically-minded film builds on Eugene Ionesco's 1959 play "Rhinoceros", an absurdist fable commenting on the sudden rise of fascism ahead of World War II.

Gitai developed the film project amid the huge protest movement against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's contentious legal overhaul, which opponents see as an attack on the country's democracy.

"Shikun" (which means "social housing" in Hebrew) brings together a series of vignettes all set in a single desolate housing complex. Scenes involving Israelis and Palestinians, as well as Ukrainians and other newcomers, are revealed in different rooms of the building.

Berlinale co-directors Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian – Berlinale 2024
Berlinale co-directors Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian expressed their concern about the rise of hatred in society (image: Gerald Matzka/dpa/picture alliance Jens Kalaene/dpa/picture alliance)

"I was just following orders"

Gitai challenges his viewers with an unconventional narrative structure, explaining in a roundtable interview that he is bored by the conformity of the kind of storytelling that dominates streaming platforms.

The film also integrates quotes from some of the world's great thinkers, from Umberto Eco to Robert Musil, as well as excerpts of a piece by Israeli journalist Amira Hass, titled "'I Was Just Following Orders': What Will You Tell Your Children?", which she wrote to her fellow Israelis to raise their awareness for the Gazans' plight.

Hass, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, was among the early critics of Germany's stance toward Israel after the October 7 attacks, publishing less than 10 days after the shock an op-ed in Israeli newspaper Haaretz titled "Germany, You Have Long Since Betrayed Your Responsibility".

Gitai's film concludes with a quote from the poem "Think of Others", words of compassion written by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008).

Gitai sees Netanyahu as a threat to Israel

While "Shikun" will feel cryptic to audiences who are not familiar with all these references, Gitai uses very clear terms to express his views on the current Israeli government in a roundtable interview with the press at the Berlinale.

After emphasising that Hamas' brutal terrorist attacks can in no way be justified, the critic of extremism said his home country is "hostage to Netanyahu's most right-wing coalition". 

Gitai sees Netanyahu as "a manipulator on the highest level", and feels that the prime minister "may destroy Israel".

"Since he doesn't have any ethical constraints, he collected the worst components of Israeli society: the ultra-nationalist, racist, extremist provocateurs, the ultra-Orthodox reactionaries who are against women, against LGBT. So he is an important component of this tragedy."

Israeli film-maker Amos Gitai
Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai (image: Ottavia Da Re/Sintesi/Photoshot/picture alliance)

Israeli and Palestinian perspectives

Another of the films commenting on the Middle East conflict at the Berlin festival is "No Other Land", directed by a Palestinian-Israeli collective.

The documentary chronicles how Basel Adra, a young Palestinian activist and one of the co-directors of the film, has been fighting for years against the eradication of Masafer Yatta, his village in the Israeli West Bank, where houses are being demolished and residents driven out. A military training ground is officially set to be built there.

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The film shows how he was then joined in his efforts by an Israeli journalist, Yuval Abraham, who became an activist after learning the Arabic language and witnessing the injustice of the Israeli occupation.

For the activists, oppression inevitably leads to violent reactions, which is why they feel the West should put more pressure on the Israeli government to end the occupation. 

"I know Germans have a lot of guilt for what happened in the Second World War," said Abraham, adding that many of his relatives were killed during the Holocaust. "Don't use this guilt now and weaponise it and refuse to call for a ceasefire; use it to help us reach a political solution! Use it to pressure the state of Israel to end the occupation," said the Israeli documentary filmmaker. "That would be for me a much more moral stance for the government to take."

Elizabeth Grenier

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