Source: Richard Hubner/Berlinale

Ben Russell wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh scarf, and ‘Direct Action’ co-director Guillaume Cailleau

The Berlinale has been criticised by local politicians from the Berlin house of representatives for anti-war statements made by award-winners and jury members at the closing night gala on Saturday February 24.

Joe Chialo, senator for cultural affairs, said on X [formerly Twitter]: “Culture should offer a space for diverse political opinions, but this year’s award ceremony of the Berlinale was marked by self-righteous anti-Israeli propaganda that has no place on the stages of Berlin.”

Speaking to local broadcaster RBB, Melanie Kühnemann-Grunow, spokesperson on media policy for the Social Democrats (SPD), said, “The Berlinale has suffered damage - whether this can be healed remains to be seen.”

Also in an interview with RBB, Daniela Billig, spokesperson on arts policy for the Greens in the Berlin parliament, added: “The incidents [on Saturday evening] are a difficult legacy for the new director [Tricia Tuttle]. The cultural scene has done itself a disservice with this.”

Governing mayor Kai Wegner (CDU), who had recently returned from an official two-day visit to Israel and Palestine, including to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and meeting the head of the German mission in Ramallah, said in a statement to the Berlin daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, that Berlin has “a clear position when it is a question of defending freedom. This also means that Berlin is firmly on the side of Israel. There isn’t any doubt about that.

“The full responsibility for the profound suffering in Israel and in the Gaza strip lies with Hamas,” he continued. “It is in their hands to end this suffering by freeing all of the hostages and putting down their weapons. There can’t be any room here for relativisations. I expect measures here from the new Berlinale management.” 

Given Germany’s history in the last century, the country’s politicians are particularly sensitive to claims the Berlinale could provide a platform for what could be seen as anti-semitic rhetoric. 

Cultural senator Chailo had introduced a policy at the end of 2023 that said funding for cultural institutions and projects would be conditional on recipients signing an “anti-discrimination” clause to declare that they are in favout of a diverse society and oppose any form of antisemitism. But he was forced to withdraw this clause after only a month after 6,000 artists protested at what they perceived as a restriction on the freedom of art and freedom of expression.

Festival protests 

The festival’s gala closing ceremony on Saturday evening was punctuated by regular declarations of support for the people of Gaza and Palestine and claims the Israeli government was committing acts of genocide and apartheid in Palestine, from the winning filmmakers. 

Before the awards were announced, Berlinale co-director Mariette Rissenbeek said: “This terrible war has moved many people also during the festival and we demand from Hamas to release the hostages and we also ask Israel to do anything possible to save the civil population in the Gaza strip. We now need a political solution so that we can have peaceful cohabitation in this region.”

The following two hours saw award winners including Brazil’s Juliana Rojas (Cidade: Campo), US director Ben Russell and France-born, Berlin-based filmmaker Guillaume Cailleau (co-directors of Direct Action) and the French-Senegalese Golden Bear winning director Mati Diop (Dahomey) voice their solidarity for the Palestinian people.

French director-artist-anthropologist Verena Paravel sported a note on her back with the words ’Cease Fire Now’ when reading the motivation for the documentary jury’s winner No Other Land. The film is directed by a Palestinian-Israeli collective including Palestinian filmmaker Basel Adra and Israeli filmmaker Yuval Abraham.

On receiving the award, Abraham said, “In two days we will go back to a land where we are not equal. I am living under a civilian law, Basel under military law. We live 30 minutes from one another but I have voting rights, but Basel doesn’t. I am free to move where I want in this land, but Basel is locked like millions of Palestinians in the West Bank. This situation of inequality and apartheid has to end.”

Abraham shared a clip of his speech on X the following day, noting it has been labelled “anti-semitic” by Israeli television channel Kan 11 and that he continues to “stand behind every word.”

Today (February 26), Claudia Roth, Germany’s minister for culture and the media, announced that with Wegner, she is launching an investigation into the incidents during Saturday’s awards ceremony to see “how the Berlinale has or has not lived up to its claim of being a place of diversity, different perspectives and dialogue” and “to ensure in future that the Berlinale is a place that is free from hatred, hate speech, anti-Semitism, racism, Islamophobia and all forms of enmity”.

 Roth said the statements made by prize-winners during the awards ceremony had been “frighteningly one-sided and characterised by a profound hatred of Israel.”

Speaking to the dpa news service, Roth said her ministry would now be meeting with Rissenbeek and co-director Carlo Chatrian to discuss what happened at the weekend. She also revealed that she was already in contact with the Berlinale’s incoming festival director Tricia Tuttle and, “together with her, we will draw the necessary conclusions from the reappraisal of this Berlinale”

“However, I would like to emphasise quite clearly that the artistic freedom and independence of the Berlinale must not be compromised,” Roth underlined. ”I clearly reject any demands to this effect. However, this artistic freedom also comes with a great responsibility.”

Deepening controversy

The day after the ceremony the festival was swift to respond when a a pro-Palestinian post was published on the Panorama section’s Instagram channel, apparently by hackers. 

A photo with the Berlinale’s official bear logo and including the contentious slogan “Free Palestine - From the River to the Sea” as well as the hashtag #ceasefirenow was removed by the festival, which followed up with an official statement on its Facebook account. 

“These posts did not originate from the festival and do not represent the Berlinale’s position,” said the festival. “We immediately deleted them and initiated an investigation into how this incident occurred. We will file criminal charges against unknown persons.”

A pro-Israeli demonstration then followed on Sunday afternoon in front of the Zoo Palast cinema before the presentation of Adra and Abraham’s Panorama audience award-winning documentary No Other Land.

The Berlinale management issued a statement to RBB’s local evening news programme, declaring: “We respect the statements of guests and prize-winners, these are independent individual opinions. They therefore do not reflect the position of the Berlinale.”

The conflict in Gaza was one of several political topics to take centre stage during the festival, with activists briefly disrupting the European Film Market on Sunday, February 18.