Berlin: Political Hot-Button Films Set Love Stories to Ukraine Famine, Racially Charged Israel

Junction 48 still 1 - Samar Qupty and Tamer Nafar - H 2016
Courtesy of Amnon Zalait

Samantha Barks tells THR of shooting 'Bitter Harvest' in war-ravaged Ukraine, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict film 'Junction 48' also debuts at the fest.

After playing Eponine in Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, Samantha Barks turned to a romantic drama set during the 1930s famine in Soviet Ukraine.

What the British singer-actress didn't count on was shooting Bitter Harvest opposite co-star Max Irons in war-ravaged Ukraine just as that country was invaded by Vladimir Putin's Russian forces.

"It was very, very scary, for everyone — you go on set and you're filming these incredibly emotional scenes, of the horrible struggles the Ukrainian people have been through, and then you leave set and it's still happening," Barks told The Hollywood Reporter while promoting the Canadian indie in Berlin. "I was waking up in the morning with texts from family and friends asking whether I was okay. I thought, 'What do you mean, am I okay?' I hadn't seen the news yet."

NCIS star Tamar Hassan, who co-stars in Bitter Harvest, recalled seeing anti-Russian protesters while out on location, and the film talents' hotel was stormed and seized the day after the production left. "We were all very passionate about this subject, and we wanted to support Ukraine, but our producers stopped us every night in going to join the protests," Hassan recounted.

"It was difficult to make a film on a subject that was still continuing on our doorstep and we couldn't get involved," he added.

Bitter Harvest, directed by George Mendeluk and also featuring Barry Pepper and Terence Stamp, is one of many hot-button movies at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, typically an event keen to make political statements with its lineup choices.

The epic drama, financed by Canadian Ian Ihnatowycz, chronicles a love story between Barks and Irons' characters set against the backdrop of Ukraine's Holodomor, the famine of 1933 imposed by Stalin's Soviet regime. "It was such an incredible and powerful script, and what was crazy to me was I didn't know anything about this [Holodomor]. It has been completely kept under wraps," said Barks.

Elsewhere, Hollywood writer-director Oren Moverman and co-writer/Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar also used a tragic love story to conceive the script for Junction 48, an Israel-Germany-U.S. co-production that portrays the struggles of Arabs and Jews to live side-by-side in an impoverished community in Lod, Israel.

The Berlin competition title is a unique collaboration between director Udi Aloni, the enfant terrible of Israeli cinema, and lead actor Nafar, the frontman of DAM, a Palestinian rap band. "If we show something, it's how simple — because everyone says it's so complicated — how simple is it to create this partnership in a community, how simple the minute that the Jews decide to be humble and equal, how easy they [Palestinians] will receive me as one of them," Aloni said at the press conference for the pic.

Aloni, who has long fought for Palestinian rights in Israel, added: "It's so simple, and everyone tells me it's so complicated."

Junction 48 has other Hollywood backing in executive producer James Schamus and producer Lawrence Inglee (Time Out of Mind).

After a career working in Israeli theater and movies, Palestinian actress Salwa Nakkara welcomed Junction 48  to be able to work with an Israeli director to tell a Palestinian story. "They [Israelis] use us as actors inside Israel to tell their stories, using us as Palestinians to create a voice for democracy," she said.

"This is the first script I read that I feel that this is our story. The story of this society, of this Palestinian community inside Israel, this is art for me," Nakkara added.