Berlinale 2024: A politically charged start for Lupita Nyong'o and her jury

Lupita Nyong'o discusses the politics of being the Jury President at the Berlinale.
Lupita Nyong'o discusses the politics of being the Jury President at the Berlinale. Copyright David Mouriquand
By David Mouriquand
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Day One of the Berlinale, and things are already getting heated, with one of the most politically charged Jury press conferences in recent memory. Here's what happened...

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The Berlin Film Festival prides itself on being a political festival, and that reputation was inescapable during this year’s Jury press conference – to the point a palpable tension was in the air by the end of the jury’s time with the accredited press.

Granted, this year has given us the motherload in terms of hot topic issues.

Whether it’s the AfD invitation rescinded, the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, or the war in Gaza and the looming protests during the festival linked with Israel-Hamas war, this year’s Berlinale is already very political indeed.

During the press conference this morning, Jury President Lupita Nyong’o, joined by American filmmaker/actor Brady Corbet, Chinese director Ann Hui, German director Christian Petzold, Spanish director Albert Serra, Italian actor/director Jasmine Trinca and Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko, all had questions directed at them on a series of issues that strayed very far from the traditional “On the scale of 1 to 10, how great are you?” fare.

It started off gently enough with Nyong’o being asked what it meant being selected as President of this year’s 74th edition.

“I feel greatly honoured,” said the Academy Award winner. “It’s a chance for me to learn more about the world of cinema and a chance to celebrate it.”

Lupita Nyong'o, the Jury President of this year's Berlin Film Festival.
Lupita Nyong'o, the Jury President of this year's Berlin Film Festival.David Mouriquand

With reference to the festival being a political one, Nyong’o gracefully answered that she was aware of the reputation but was not yet in a position to talk about it.

“I’ve heard that a lot in the last 48 hours. I’m curious to learn what that means, and to see how artists are responding to the world we’re living in right now.”

When asked about her varied jury members and how they would be finding common ground, especially with reference made to a 2018 interview in which Albert Serra said he admired Putin for his assertive nature, Nyong’o also had some appropriately diplomatic words: “It’s the beauty of bringing together people from different backgrounds.”

She did add: “We have a lot of world experience and opinion, and it’s going to be interesting. We’re already having robust discussions – I can tell you it’s probably going to be spicy!”

Cue: laughter, but from then on, the politically-charged questions escalated.

German filmmaker Christian Petzold with Lupita Nyong'o.
German filmmaker Christian Petzold with Lupita Nyong'o.David Mouriquand

Nyong’o responded to the festival inviting and then disinviting far-right AfD politicians to the opening ceremony, especially since there have been reports that AfD politicians held meetings with neo-Nazi activists to discuss a “masterplan” for mass deportations in the event of the party coming to power.

“I’m a foreigner here. I don’t know the ins and outs of the political situation here,” Nyong’o said.

When asked whether she would have attended the ceremony had the politicians still been invited, she replied: “I’m glad I don’t have to answer that question. I’m glad I don’t have to be in that position.”

Christian Petzold, who won the Silver Bear Jury Prize last year for his film Afire, added: “I think it’s not a problem to have five persons of the AfD in the audience. We are no cowards. If you can’t stand five persons of the AfD as part of the audience, we will lose our fight.”

Seeing that the questions kept coming, he later added: “I think all of these questions make them stronger than they are. There are hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating against them, and they are much more important than this kind of discussion.”

Spanish filmmaker Albert Serra [right] responded to previously being labelled a “Putin admirer.”
Spanish filmmaker Albert Serra [right] responded to previously being labelled a “Putin admirer.”David Mouriquand

Another moment of tension came when the aloof-seeming Albert Serra’s comments on Putin were brought up once more. For more context, the Spanish director behind 2022’s celebrated film Pacifiction said in a lengthy interview that he would like to work for the Russian intelligence services and that he admired Putin.

Granted, these quotes are frequently taken out of context and syphoned of the sly humour the director frequently employs. However, his comments have not aged well...

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Labelled as a “Putin admirer”, Serra stated that it was a complex issue and that his opinion “is not relevant in this context.”

Fellow jury member Brady Corbet came to Serra’s defence, saying that while he was not familiar with the context of the interview, he “cannot imagine that what (Serra) was saying was not without nuance” and that the soundbite may misrepresent Serra’s views.

A brilliant moment came when Oksana Zabuzhko, one of Ukraine’s most celebrated authors, added: “I was sitting next to Albert last night and he told me he bought my book. I hope he’ll educate himself a little bit.”

Spilling some sass: Oksana Zabuzhko, one of Ukraine’s most celebrated authors.
Spilling some sass: Oksana Zabuzhko, one of Ukraine’s most celebrated authors.David Mouriquand

While political issues cannot be ignored, and the jury members presumably knew that these topics would rear their heads at some point, this jury press conference was in keeping with the tension already surrounding this year’s 74th edition. Let’s hope that once the screenings get started in earnest, the conversation can be appropriately diluted with talk of cinema and the things that bring people together.

“Any more political questions?” cheekily queried the ever-wonderful Petzold at the end of the press conference.

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I think we’ve had our fill for today, thanks Christian.

The Berlin Film Festival lasts until 25 February. Stay tuned to Euronews Culture for all the news and reviews of the 74th edition.

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