Berlinale honours jailed Iranian director

The Berlin film festival will honour dissident Iranian film-maker Jafar Panahi, who was sentenced to prison in December, on the anniversary of the Islamic revolution Friday.

Berlinale honours jailed Iranian director
Photo: DPA

Following tributes in Cannes and Venice, Berlin invited Panahi to serve on its jury. But though he is free on bail after receiving a six-year jail sentence and a 20-year film-making ban, he is barred from travelling abroad.

The 61st Berlinale, as the event in known, has held a place open on the jury, chaired by Italian-American actress Isabella Rossellini, for Panahi “to show its support for his struggle for freedom”.

“We are still hoping that he will be able to come. We haven’t given up,” the Italian-American actress told reporters at the festival’s opening news conference Thursday, as she sat next to his vacant chair.

“He is a very big presence even though he is not here,” she added, stressing that the decision to include him on the panel in absentia was a reminder that “freedom of speech is at the base of freedom of art and film-making.”

Panahi was convicted of illicit propaganda for working on a film about unrest after the disputed re election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009.

Film-makers, writers and artists have complained of increased censorship under Ahmadinejad’s presidency.

Festival director Dieter Kosslick has repeatedly appealed to Iranian authorities to allow Panahi, whose cause has also attracted the support of Hollywood giants Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, to attend the event.

“Offside”, Panahi’s comedy about girls who dress up as boys so they can sneak into a football match, will screen Friday in the festival’s main showcase in place of a competition film.

Panahi, a 50-year-old veteran of the Iran-Iraq war who tackles taboo issues such as prostitution and the oppression of women in his work, won a Silver Bear prize for “Offside” at the Berlinale in 2006.

The 10-day event will showcase another four of Panahi’s award-winning pictures such as “The Circle” and “Crimson Gold”, introduced by Iranian directors and actors.

This year’s competition among 16 international contenders will feature compatriot Asghar Farhadi, who won a best director prize for his haunting drama “About Elly” at the 2009 festival.

His latest picture, “Nader and Simin, A Separation” about an estranged couple reunited by a surprise event, will premiere Tuesday.

Farhadi faced a production ban by Iranian authorities while making the film for comments in support of Panahi. The ban was later lifted.

Next Thursday, the festival will hold a panel discussion entitled “Censored Cinema” with Iranian film-makers and artists on “censorship, and the restriction of freedom of opinion and expression in Iran”.

It will feature director Rafi Pitts, whose political thriller “The Hunter” appeared in the 2010 competition, Ali Samadi Ahadi, who made searing documentary “The Green Wave” about the 2009 opposition protests, as well as author-activist Mehrangiz Kar.

Samadi Ahadi, who lives in Germany, said that negotiations between the West and Iran on Tehran’s disputed nuclear programme, for example, were intertwined with the human rights issue.

“Iranian cinema is in a kind of state of emergency right now because the government has not really let people work in Iran since 2009,” he told Berlin magazine Tip.

“The fact that festivals like the Berlinale declare their solidarity and leave a place for Panahi on their jury is more than just a gesture. Because if the Iranian government tramples on the rights of its own people, why should it not do the same with the international community?”


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German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Walk around the German Alpine village of Oberammergau, and the chances are you'll run into Jesus or one of his 12 disciples.

German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Of the 5,500 people living there, 1,400 — aged from three months to 85 — are participating this year in the once-a-decade staging of an elaborate “Passion Play” depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Dating back to 1634, the tradition has persisted through four centuries of wars, religious turmoil and pandemics — including the most recent Covid-19 crisis which caused the show to be postponed by two years.

“I think we’re a bit stubborn,” says Frederic Mayet, 42, when asked how the village has managed to hold on to the tradition.

Mayet, who is playing Jesus for the second time this year, says the Passion Play has become a big part of the town’s identity.

Oberammergau Passion Plays

Posters for the 42nd Oberammergau Passion Play – which was originally scheduled to take place in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmth

The only prerequisite for taking part in the five-hour show, whether as an actor, chorister or backstage assistant, is that you were born in Oberammergau or have lived here for at least 20 years.

“I remember that we talked about it in kindergarten. I didn’t really know what it was about, but of course I wanted to take part,” says Cengiz Gorur, 22, who is playing Judas.

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‘Hidden talent’ 

The tradition, which dates back to the Thirty Years’ War, was born from a belief that staging the play would help keep the town safe from disease.

Legend has it that, after the first performance, the plague disappeared from the town.

In the picturesque Alpine village, Jesus and his disciples are everywhere — from paintings on the the facades of old houses to carved wooden figures in shop windows.

You also can’t help feeling that there is a higher-than-average quota of men with long hair and beards wandering the streets.

Religious figurines Oberammergau

Religious figurines adorn a shop window in Oberammergau. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

An intricate image of Jesus graces the stage of the open-air Passion Play theatre, where the latest edition of the show is being held from mid-May to October 2nd.

“What has always fascinated me is the quality of the relationship between all the participants, young and old. It’s a beautiful community, a sort of ‘Passion’ family,” says Walter Lang, 83.

He’s just sad that his wife, who died in February, will not be among the participants this year.

“My parents met at a Passion Play, and I also met my future wife at one,” says Andreas Rödl, village mayor and choir member.

Gorur, who has Turkish roots, was spotted in 2016 by Christian Stückl, the head of the Munich People’s Theatre who will direct the play for the fourth time this year.

“I didn’t really know what to do with my life. I probably would have ended up selling cars, the typical story,” he laughs.

Now, he’s due to start studying drama in Munich this autumn.

“I’ve discovered my hidden talent,” he says.

READ ALSO: Nine of the best day trips from Munich with the €9 ticket

Violence, poverty and sickness

Stückl “has done a lot for the reputation of the show, which he has revolutionised” over the past 40 years, according to Barbara Schuster, 35, a human resources manager who is playing Mary Magdalene.

“Going to the Passion Play used to be like going to mass. Now it’s a real theatrical show,” she says.

In the 1980s, Stückl cut all the parts of the text that accused the Jews of being responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, freeing the play from anti-Semitic connotations.

“Hitler had used the Passion Play for his propaganda,” Schuster points out.


Christian Stückl, the director of the Oberammergau Passion Play, holds a press conference announcing the cancellation of the play in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

The play’s themes of violence, poverty and sickness are reflected in today’s world through the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, say Mayet, the actor playing Jesus.

“Apparently we have the same problems as 2,000 years ago,” he says.

For 83-year-old Lang, who is playing a peasant this year, the “Hallelujah” after Christ has risen for the final time in October will be a particularly moving moment.

“Because we don’t know if we’ll be there again next time,” he says, his eyes filling with tears.

By Isabelle Le Page