Zero Arab titles in Competition/Encounters at Berlinale, with a focus on Ukraine and Iran

While the lack of representation of films from the MENA is disappointing, there are some titles that caught our attention.
Zero Arab titles in Competition/Encounters at Berlinale, with a focus on Ukraine and Iran

This year's Berlinale focuses on its solidarity for Ukraine and Iran and in its press release, points out that "Like numerous cultural institutions worldwide, the Berlinale has expressed its solidarity with Ukraine and Iran. Solidarity is expressed within the 2023 Berlinale in the sections and initiatives in the film selection and with various events – in part with cooperation partners." The tiny bear pin that is typically available for purchase at their merchandise points of sale, as well as being worn by all its staff will feature the colors of the Ukrainian flag. This is the first time in the festival's history that another country's flag is featured on the pin.

For a bit of a statistical view, out of 18 works in Competition, six are directed by women. And none from the MENA, including works by Israeli filmmakers which always have something ready for Berlinale. In Encounters, which is the festival's version of Cannes' Un Certain Regard, there are 16 titles in the lineup, with four women filmmakers helming their own work and one serving as co-director on a Hungarian title.

The only MENA related title in Encounters is the French/Swiss co-financed documentary Mon pire ennemi (My Worst Enemy) directed by Iranian helmer Mehran Tamadon, featuring the French/Iranian Holy Spider actress and activist Zar Amir Ebrahimi.

Diversity is plentiful in Competition at Berlinale, don't get me wrong, it's just not featuring much from the MENA region.

Japan, China, the U.S., South Africa and of course Germany are all well represented. A couple of cool titles we can't wait to watch include the Iranian doc mentioned above, which world premieres in Berlin, as well as the Odessa Young and Jesse Eisenberg film Manodrome by John Trengove, whose 2017 title The Wound was previously screened at Berlinale. And of course, the Simon Baker starrer Limbo, directed by Ivan Sen and also starring Rob Collins, Natasha Wanganeen, Nicholas Hope and Mark Coe.

Odessa Young and Jesse Eisenberg in 'Manodrome' by John Trengove © Wyatt Garfield

Among the films premiering this year at the festival, one title just announced will be featured in a Special Gala. Superpower is a film that American actor Sean Penn along with Aaron Kaufman made while Penn was in Ukraine visiting Zelensky, just as the war with Russia broke out. It points to the fact that the festival community is always welcoming stories of victims and perhaps the lack of filmmakers from the MENA region in Competition means that finally the Arab world is no longer a pity-inducing place. But now, rather a victoriously healthy environment producing quality works that can easily break out as box office hits. This was witnessed recently with the Saudi mega hit Sattar, which broke records in KSA.

Esteemed journalist Melanie Goodfellow questioned the co-directors of Berlinale, in a thorough article for U.S. publication Deadline. This was right after artistic director Carlo Chatrian and executive director Mariëtte Rissenbeck unveiled the Competition and Encounters line up on Monday morning and Goodfellow addressed questions on the Ukrainian choices, as well as when and for how long Steven Spielberg will be in town, while he's been honored by Berlinale. It's an interview worth reading in full.

Chatrian responded to Goodfellow regarding the lack of Arab titles: "I said that this was one of the elements that is missing from the main slate, not only Arab film, but also African movies. We have to be sure that the films we select are the right fit for the Competition. This year, we have a very strong presence from Asia, Australia. That’s the beauty of the selection each year, that you have a different focus. We don’t do the selection with a preconceived idea of having a little bit of this or that, but rather by responding to the films. I’m sure next year, we will have them again, even if, in the major festivals, it is not that easy to find Arab films in competition, unfortunately."

I'd go one step further and continue to shout to the winds that festivals have too few women programmers working for them. And, as has been proven at recent festivals, it is women who are more easily attracted to Arab titles that possess a certain poetry and visual style -- works like Soudade Kaadan's Nezouh which premiered in Venice and saw a clear divide between male and women critics.

Stay tuned for the program announcement, which will include screening times and venues, to come from Berlinale. This year the festival will run from Feb. 16th to the 26th.

For all the titles announced and more info, check out their website.

Header photo of Simon Baker in 'Limbo' courtesy of © Bunya Productions, used with permission.

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