The elephant in the tiny house

What to do when film festivals do not meet our expectations? Film critic Öykü Sofuoğlu questions to what extent film professionals can expect festivals like Berlinale to show political engagement through direct, concrete decisions and actions.

20.02.2024 | Öykü Sofuoğlu

After all, the subversive intellectual came
under false pretences, with bad documents, out of love.
Her labor is as necessary as it is unwelcome.

Fred Moten, Undercommons


I’ve been talking to many people lately, asking them questions and seeking guidance about an issue on which I’m completely at a loss. I’ve been restless, feeling useless, and every time I try to ignore these sentiments, they manage to come back, for they’re always there. At this stage, it is impossible not to see the sheer terror, the systematic, ruthless massacres that Palestinians are subjected to. As a writer, a film critic, and even more so as a journalist, though I acknowledge its impact may be minute, the only conceivable way I see to acknowledge our indirect complicity in Palestinians’ plight and our incapacity to bring it to an end, is to write, to talk, and to urge people to talk. For over four months now, many writers, directors, artists, cultural workers, programmers, and curators have been engaged in a similar endeavour. In order not to plunge into despair-induced inertia and cynicism, they are trying to mobilise every platform, media, and institution at their disposal to serve as a proxy for the Palestinians voice—carefully avoiding, but not always succeeding, not to become their voice. They expect these structures to assume a responsibility, to take a stance, and to actively attempt to make a change in a political and cultural climate where everything is expressed through the passive voice, lacking the subject’s active engagement. Not to mention how some of these structures, institutions, or media outlets have attempted to call out, intimidate, or even cut ties with people who openly expressed their support for Palestine, among whom are many immigrants whose residential status is always at risk.

From early on in my career as a film critic, I came to understand how politics has been an integral element in festivals’ existence—both historically, structurally, and financially, with recent international conflicts exerting considerable influence on the programming and networking processes, for better or for worse. I mention this while acknowledging that a film festival, as an abstract entity, doesn’t exist but is made possible through the participation of different actors and groups whose opinions may not necessarily align with what emerges as ‘festival’s statement or position’. However, another aspect I cannot overlook in this dynamic is that some actors’ voices, primarily those tied to corporate or state interests, systematically tend to suppress others—marginalised, oppressed people, minorities, immigrants, who, as we all know, serve these structures merely to tick the boxes in their ‘inclusivity guidelines’.

In the context of European film festivals, we have been witnessing a crucial confrontation between the oppressed and the dominant forces, who ostensibly provide them ‘a platform’ to make their voices heard, express their disapproval, and offer criticisms, yet feel ‘deeply concerned’ when they actually do so. This confrontation reached its peak during IDFA in November when the festival condemned the protest by pro-Palestinian activists during the opening ceremony and issued an apology, citing the ‘hurtful’ nature of the slogan they used. In response to this absence of solidarity and support, several filmmakers withdrew their films from the festival and made a call for a boycott, to which the festival responded with a statement that, if anything, was even more maladroit. Despite the heated reactions to IDFA, IFFR, which took place last month, passed rather uneventfully, as all eyes were already on Berlinale after the Berlin Senate’s decision to add a new clause requiring recipients of art fundings to commit to rejecting any form of anti-Semitism. Combined with several German institutions’ repression of pro-Palestinian artists, writers, and curators, and their heavy reliance on state funding, the Strike Germany initiative decided to urge international cultural workers to strike, boycott German institutions, and pressure them into issuing a call for a ceasefire. Among these institutions was also Berlinale.

Filmmakers Ayo Tsalithaba, Suneil Sanzgiri, and John Greyson withdrew their films from the Forum Expanded section. Maryam Tafakory, who also withdrew her film from IDFA, announced that she won’t be participating in Berlinale Talent Lab: Short Form Station. Several outlets, such as Tone Glow and Ultra Dogme, announced that they won’t be covering the festival. The festival’s decision to invite far-right politicians of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was the last straw. Although they eventually decided to ‘disinvite’ them after receiving backlash, the festival’s lack of initiatives to assume a position or to prioritise discussions and debates regarding Palestine became more evident. On February 13th, a group of filmmakers and film crew members participating in the 74th edition of Berlinale released an open letter to the festival, calling on them to “engage more actively and discursively with the urgency and reality of the moment”. This publication was followed shortly after by a statement of a group of Berlinale Talents alumni making a similar request to the organisers of the programme. 

We have no choice but to address our expectations of film festivals as well as their real capacity to fulfil them. To what extent can film festivals concretely create a space for discussion, debate, but more importantly, for emotions like grief, anger, or despair in times of war (genocide)? As film professionals, to what extent can we expect them to show political engagement through direct, concrete decisions and actions? And if our expectations are not fulfilled, do we have the power to bring about any structural change?

I think the first step in discussing these questions would be to focus on the language—the language of these official statements where abstract values and concepts like ‘peaceful dialogue’ or ’empathy, awareness, understanding’ are used abundantly without providing examples that should be concrete, visible, and impactful. The idealisation of values and missions results in nothing but hypocrisy and empty promises. I would like to read a statement where an institution recognises that they ‘couldn’t’ manage to do something—say, assume responsibility or stand up against pressure. I would also like them to acknowledge that they’re not exempt from the cultural sector’s dependency on national and international political and financial structures, which might lead them to act or make decisions in a defined way, for example, inviting far-right politicians in the first place. Accepting that one can be wrong, at fault, weak, tied hand and foot as an institution, that film festivals are run by individuals also depending on social and political contexts could indeed be a change.

In Berlinale’s case, the festival’s supposed ‘impartiality’ also begs to be questioned. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many film festivals, including Berlinale, decided to exclude “official state institutions and, in this case, Russian institutions or delegations as well as supporting actors of the regime” on the grounds of the country’s violation of international law. As I’m writing these words, the Israeli army killed more than 27,000 Palestinians, yet in the near future, I can’t see Berlinale adopting a similar attitude towards Israel. My intention in giving this example is not to compare wars nor inhumane crimes, but simply to denounce Berlinale’s dishonesty: If wanted, Berlinale could very well take a position.

When we consider the festival context more broadly, ‘creating space’ or ‘taking position’ in the name of oppressed communities, displaced, and marginalised people often translates into programming films and adding special focuses to the festival. However, amid the urgency and complexity of the events, few of these programs do justice to the historical, political, and social dimensions that need to be fully grasped to understand the issue at hand. People deserve more than to be reduced to keywords or genres in the program. Yet there are various strategies to attempt overcoming these difficulties—even if complete resolution may not be achieved in the end. Although I’m giving examples that conform to Berlinale’s program, they can be applied to any film festival with similar structures: inviting guest programmers or curators, leveraging virtual platforms (often overlooked post-COVID), organising panels, and utilising Berlinale Talents or European Film Market to connect with filmmakers, producers, and distributors in difficulty. Structural changes might require time, collective effort and pressure, but we can still take inspiration from pragmatic and realistic initiatives at hand that try to push things forward, such as Simon(e) van Saarloos, the curator of Contagious & Queer at IDFA, who offered their program as ‘a space for teach ins on the Zionist pressures & fascist rhetoric’—and all the other filmmakers, panellists, guests who make use of their position to draw attention on mass ethnic cleansing happening right in front of our eyes in Palestine.

People working in the film industry are obviously expecting this attitude from Berlinale since the festival has been considerably vocal about other political issues in the past—and still is, if we think about the call they made to the Iranian authorities to allow filmmakers Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha to leave the country to attend the festival. However, as emphasised in the open letter, this year’s Berlinale lacks active and consequential attempts to grant visibility to Palestinian voices in the film world, apart from No Other Land in the Panorama section and the three days long ‘Tiny House’ project, that consists of a small cabin where people are invited to talk about Israel and Palestine. While I fully respect and support this initiative, in a film festival as big as Berlinale, I believe that the project seems to provoke the opposite effect—confining the giant elephant in the room to a tiny house, moving the debate from public to private sphere. What if we reverse the order of things, decide to reappropriate and subvert the funding structures, and talk about Palestine where it is least expected? This was exactly what Diana Al-Halabi did at IFFR with her film The Battle of Empty Stomachs, which was awarded by the IFFR RTM Pitch award—an award typically given to short films focusing on Rotterdam, which she used to create a film about the hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons.

What is to be done? I believe I’m one of the thousands of film critics, artists, directors, programmers and workers from various festivals, including Berlinale, who asked and are still asking this question to themselves—I hope they do. It would be easy and quite convenient to end this letter by saying “Yet I don’t have an answer for this question.”, in a literal think-piece way. But I won’t, because I do have an answer, and this letter itself is the proof—incomplete, idealistic and maybe naive yet still an answer. If you have also felt speechless, out of words regarding what’s happening in the world, I hope this letter helps to formulate your own answer, also incomplete, idealistic, and then together, only together will our voice become louder, and louder until we’ll only hear the sound of change.

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