The Berlin Film Festival is hoping to take the heat out of the fiery debate around the war in Gaza by getting people from both sides to sit down and talk.
Berlinale organizers are partnering with Berlin social activists Shai Hoffmann and Jouanna Hassoun —he’s a German Jew with Israeli roots, she’s German-Palestinian — to create an intimate space for festival attendees to discuss and debate the crisis in the Middle East. The “Tiny Space” project will see Hoffmann and Hassoun set up a small cabin-like structure near the Berlinale red carpet for three days, from Saturday, Feb. 17 to Monday, Feb. 19, 10 am to 6 pm daily, where people can come to talk about “aspects of the war, but also the conflict in the Middle East more generally,” says Berlinale managing director Mariëtte Rissenbeek.
The project is an extension of an initiative Hoffmann and Hassoun launched last year after the Oct. 7 by Hamas in Israel and Israel’s military attack in Gaza. They have been taking the small mobile house, which fits around 3-4 people, to pop-up locations around Berlin, hosting discussions with locals. “Talk about Israel and Palestine,” says the welcoming sign in the house window.
“Right now, in society, it has become very hard to combine the two sides of the debate [around the war in Gaza] in a single room, you are forced to stand for one side or the other,” says Berlinale artistic director Carlo Chatrain. “What we’d like to do as a festival is to provide a place where a dialog is possible. We believe a dialog is possible if we start with small groups [and] provide a space where certain arguments or certain emotions can be handled better than in a theater with 500 or 1,000 people.”
Berlin is already bracing for an outburst of argument and emotion at this year’s festival. The polarizing debate around the war in Gaza has spilled over into the film festival circuit, with several hundred pro-Palestinian protests disrupting Sundance last month. At Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival last November, demonstrations and fierce debates around the war in the Middle East led more than a dozen directors to pull their films in protest.
Already, two directors set to come to Berlin, both with films accepted to the Forum Expanded section for experimental cinema, have bowed out and expressed their support for #Strike Germany, an anonymous group of “artists, filmmakers, writers and cultural workers based in Berlin” who have called for a boycott of the Berlinale and all German cultural institutions, citing the German government’s support for Israel and its alleged “censorship” of pro-Palestinian views.
“Berlin is a big city and of course, we have to be prepared that there will be protests and that people will want to use the platform of the festival [to increase] the visibility of their protests,” says Rissenbeek. “But we have a security service on duty at every edition of the festival and we have already discussed different options with them depending on what is being planned. We are also in constant touch with the police so we will get very early notice of any actions and can make sure any situation is handled safely.”
Over the weekend, the Berlinale came under political fire from a different direction. An open letter, signed by more than 200 film professionals, decried the festival’s decision to follow standard festival protocol and invite elected members of the German far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to the opening ceremony of the 74th Berlinale on Feb. 15. The AfD is currently running second in national polls but many have called out the party for its increasingly virulent anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Over the past few weeks, hundreds of thousands of Germans have taken to the streets across the country to protest the party and to support calls to have it banned as “anti-democratic” by the country’s supreme court.
“I think we’ve made it very clear that we don’t agree with [the AfD]. On the contrary, we are of the exact opposite opinion. But we don’t only invite people to the Berlinale who agree with us,” says Rissenbeek. “I think it is stronger to give a clear statement of our values on the stage at the opening ceremony and in the media: To tell [the AfD] we will not keep you from coming but your values are not represented here.”