Zelensky urges film stars at Berlinale to take sides and support Ukraine

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the audience on a TV screen during the opening gala of the 73rd Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin, Germany, 16 February, 2023.Reuters

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged filmmakers to take sides in what he termed a battle between freedom and tyranny, drawing a parallel in his speech opening the Berlin Film Festival between Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the Berlin Wall.

Zelensky recalled his own experience as an actor, urging colleagues to "break the fourth wall" by directly addressing their audiences.

"For many years Potsdam Square was divided by the Berlin Wall," he said via video link. "Today Russia wants to build the same wall in Ukraine: a wall between us and Europe, to separate Ukraine from its own choice for its future."

Now in its 73rd year, the Berlinale owes its reputation as the most political of the main film festivals to its origins as a divided city on the front lines of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West.

Art could choose to take sides or remain neutral, which was tantamount to backing tyranny, said Zelensky, whose experiences on the very first days of the invasion a year ago are the subject of a Sean Penn documentary, ‘Superpower’, that will premiere at the festival on Friday.

The festival's opening gala was briefly interrupted by activists from Last Generation gluing themselves onto the red carpet in protest against environmental degradation.

Stars attending this year include director Steven Spielberg, musician Bono, and actors Fan Bingbing and Anne Hathaway, who was one of many shown blinking back tears as Zelensky spoke.

Hathaway, who stars as a therapist whose own demons are as serious as any of her patients' in Rebecca Miller's "She Came to Me", the festival's opening film, hailed Zelensky as a "hero of our time".

This year's festival will include a focus on pro-democracy protests in Iran as well the conflict in Ukraine. Films backed by the Iranian and Russian governments are banned.

"Berlin is the city that broke the wall - the actual wall," said French-Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, a jury member. "This year that is very important for us, for the people of Iran. We are fighting for freedom and we don't give up."

"Full disclosure: I'm kind of shaking," jury president Kristen Stewart told a news conference when asked how she felt about choosing a winner from among the 19 films in the main competition.

Outside the main competition, films hailing from Mexico to Australia will be screened, tackling topics from race and history in the United States to gender transition and sexual identity.