Berlin film fest opens with jazz biopic, Trump 'resistance'

Deborah COLE
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Nearly 400 movies will be screened during the 11-day Berlinale film festival

Nearly 400 movies will be screened during the 11-day Berlinale film festival (AFP Photo/Tobias SCHWARZ)

Berlin (AFP) - A politically charged Berlin film festival opened Thursday with a movie about the Nazis' persecution of Gypsy-jazz great Django Reinhardt and a vow by Hollywood's Maggie Gyllenhaal that Americans were "ready to resist" Donald Trump.

A total of 18 movies are vying for the festival's Golden Bear top prize, which will be awarded on February 18 by a jury led by director Paul Verhoeven ("RoboCop", "Elle").

"I hope we will see a lot of movies that are different, hopefully controversial," the Dutch filmmaker told reporters, adding that he was ready for "heated arguments" with the jury.

Living up to the Berlinale's reputation as the most topical of the big festivals, his fellow jury members wasted no time in taking aim at the US president who has drawn fierce criticism from the art world, particularly over his disputed travel ban.

"I want people to know there are many, many people in my country that are ready to resist," 39-year-old actress Gyllenhaal told reporters.

Mexican director and actor Diego Luna, at the same press conference, used humour to criticise Trump's plan to build a wall on the border with Mexico.

"I'm here to investigate how to tear down walls," the 37-year-old star of "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" quipped, in a nod to Berlin's decades-long division.

The 11-day Berlinale, Europe's first major cinema showcase of the year, will screen nearly 400 movies from 70 countries.

- Art in troubled times -

The festival's kick-off film "Django" marks the directorial debut of Etienne Comar, a French screenwriter and producer.

A virtuoso guitarist and composer who shot to global renown with his delicate melodies, Reinhardt was a member of the Sinti minority who was forced to flee German-occupied Paris in 1943 as Gypsies were being rounded up and sent to concentration camps.

The Nazis tried to enlist Reinhardt for propaganda and morale-boosting for the troops but insisted that he strip out the "Negro sound" from his music including swing and syncopation.

He refused the German tour and, recognising the grave threat to his clan and fellow musicians, Reinhardt, his elderly mother and pregnant wife became refugees.

However they got waylaid awaiting safe passage to Switzerland in the French border town of Thonon-les-Bains, where he was arrested by German troops, briefly imprisoned and forced to perform.

Comar told AFP that Reinhardt's tragic aspect came from being a "character blinded by his music, who doesn't see the world changing, in which the war sneaks up on him and only then does he finally see what is happening."

He admitted he took some liberties with the actual story but said its essence was true to history and the Catch-22 faced by artists under repressive regimes.

"It is the question: do you raise your voice by continuing to play music, writing music that expresses your resistance?" he said, noting the lengthy archival work he had done to present an accurate portrait.

The film stars Reda Kateb, who appeared with Viggo Mortensen in the Algeria-set war drama "Far From Men".

Kateb told AFP he left the historical aspects to Comar while he delved into mastering Reinhardt's signature technique, which the guitarist perfected despite losing the use of two fingers in a fire as a child.

He said he found the musician's integrity inspiring.

"For citizens in general, the role of our convictions determines where we stand in life and how we live with others."

"Django", which drew polite applause at a press preview ahead of a gala evening screening, won praise as one of the few big-budget films to address Nazi persecution of Roma, an estimated 500,000 of whom died in the Holocaust.

- Politics off-screen -

As a festival that is traditionally heavy on the politics, stars were expected to sound off on global affairs.

Richard Gere, in town to present his new thriller "The Dinner", used the occasion Thursday to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on his long-running activism for the Tibetan people.

Merkel had last year met with George Clooney and his human right lawyer wife Amal on the sidelines of the festival to discuss the refugee influx.

The 2016 Golden Bear went to Italy's "Fire at Sea", a portrait of the refugee crisis on the island of Lampedusa, from a jury led by Meryl Streep.

It is nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary this month.