Gender Diversity, Netflix and Politics in Focus at Berlinale

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Dieter Kosslick

The 69th edition will be the last festival under the auspices of director Dieter Kosslick, who has run the event since 2002.

The Berlin Film Festival's long goodbye to boss Dieter Kosslick began Tuesday, with the program press conference unveiling this year's lineup.

It was Kosslick's 18th such presser and his last as director of the Berlinale, a post he'll be leaving after this year's festival, which runs Feb. 7-17.

Since taking over in 2001 — his first festival as director was the 2002 Berlinale — Kosslick has transformed Berlin and established the chilly February fest as one the world's most important cinema events. In addition to being the world's largest public film festival — selling nearly half a million tickets per year to ordinary film fans — it plays host to the European Film Market, the world's second-largest film market.

After the 69th Berlinale next month, Kosslick will step down. The duo of artistic director Carlo Chatrian and managing director Mariette Rissenbeek will replace him. Chatrian, artistic director of the Locarno Film Festival for many years, will handle the Berlinale's curative side, selecting films for competition, while Rissenbeek, an industry insider and managing director of cinema promotion body German Film, will manage the business of a festival that has the workforce and annual budget ($30 million) of a midsized corporation.

One of Kosslick's achievements, one that he was keen to highlight Tuesday, has been to boost female representation at Germany's leading film festival. In this year's competition program, seven of the 17 titles in the running for the 2019 Golden Bear, or 41 percent, are from female directors. That includes this year's opening night film, The Kindness of Strangers, from Danish director Lone Scherfig, which kicks off the Berlinale on Feb. 7.

Kosslick himself has said that the better gender balance in Berlin has been due in no small part to the number of women in the festival's selection committees. In figures published Tuesday, Berlin documented that fully 81 percent of the people involved in picking festival films are women, and that women make up a majority in the selection committees in most of the different festival sections. 

Berlin also broke down its submissions for this year, noting that 62.7 percent of submitted films were from male directors, and 32.9 percent from female helmers, with no information on the remaining 4.4 percent. This compares with 63.9 percent male- and 32.9 percent female-directed submissions in 2018.

Unveiling the full program for his 18th and final Berlin festival, was, Kosslick said, like “closing the circle.” Many of the directors in this year's competition are Kosslick favorites, who have been regulars in Berlin during his reign. They include Polish auteur Agnieszka Holland, who returns after her 2017 entry Spoor with Mr. Jones, a period political thriller starring Vanessa Kirby, James Norton and Peter Sarsgaard; Francois Ozon, represented this year with Catholic sex scandal exposé By the Grace of God; Sweden's Hans Petter Moland, whose Out Stealing Horses features regular collaborator Stellan Skarsgard —“we can't have a Berlinale withhout Stellan Skarsgard,” Kosslick quipped — and Chinese master Zhang Yimou, who returns with the historic drama One Second.

Spanish director Isabel Coixet, another Berlinale regular, is back in competition this year with Elisa & Marcela, a black-and-white period drama about the first lesbian couple to marry in Spain. But more than its subject matter, the fact that the film was backed by Netflix has attracted attention in Berlin. Elisa & Marcela will be the first Netflix film to screen in competition at the Berlinale. Chiwetel Ejiofor's The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, another Netflix production, will get a special, out-of-competition screening in Berlin.

“The world has changed,” Kosslick said, when asked to comment on the streaming versus cinema debate, a discussion that was in focus at both the Cannes and Venice film festivals last year. "This question of streaming is one that has just started. The audiovisual world is in a state of great upheaval, we'll see where we end up," he said, "but I'm convinced that cinema will stay, streaming notwithstanding. Despite what some may say, I think film festivals will become more, not less, important in the future and that there will be a coexistence between the festivals and the streamers."

What hasn't changed in Berlin is the politics. Kosslick has never been afraid to set up his soapbox and use the festival as a platform for progressive issues — whether its putting Gianfranco Rosi's migrant documentary Fire at Sea in competition in 2016 (where it won the Golden Bear) or inviting two former inmates of America's infamous Guantanamo Bay prison to walk the red carpet for the world premiere of Michael Winterbottom's The Road to Guantanamo in 2006.

So Kosslick didn't shy away from one of the hot button topics this year — the recent demand by Israel that the German government end its funding for the Berlinale because of the festival's alleged support for the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, a pro-Palestinian activist group that seeks to cut  global cultural ties with Israel in protest of the country's mistreatment of Palestinians. The Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel demanding Germany stop funding the Berlinale —and other institutions, including the Jewish Museum of Berlin — claiming they support “anti-Israel activities.” Berlin's Taz newspaper obtained a copy of the seven-page letter and printed details of it last month. Taz also published an open letter from dozens of Israeli artists urging the German government and parliament to reject Israel's demands.

“I can imagine (Netanyahu) doesn't like a lot of the films we show,” Kosslick said, adding, “but that doesn't bother me — we don't like a lot of things he does either.”

Kosslick also used the political discussion as an opportunity to announce a last-minute addition to the Berlin festival lineup. In response to growing right-wing extremism in Germany — and the rise of the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD), Kosslick said the Berlinale would be doing a special screening of Roberta Grossman's acclaimed documentary Who Will Write Our History? The film, compiled from Emanuel Ringelblum's eyewitness archive, assembled in secret during his time in the Warsaw Ghetto, will have a special screening Feb. 10 at the Kino International in Berlin.

“Everyone who hasn't seen this film should go,” said Kosslick, “and for every member of the AfD, for every AfD member of parliament: I'll pay for your tickets out of my own pocket.”

That line got a big round of applause. Almost as big as when Kosslick finished his final Berlinale program presser, thanking everyone for the support they have given him, and his festival, over the past 18 years.

“There were a few hiccups," he said, "but it was always fun.”