Berlin film fest to beam in Zelensky for opener with Sean Penn

The Berlinale bear logo is seen in the foreground as US actress and Berlinale Jury President Kristen Stewart attends a press conference on the opening day of the Berlinale, Europe's first major film festival of the year, on 16 February, 2023 in Berlin.AFP

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky will join Hollywood actor Sean Penn by video link on Thursday at the opening of the Berlinale, Europe's first major film festival of the year, as it spotlights the fight for freedom in Ukraine and Iran.

The 73rd annual event, traditionally the most politically minded of the three big European cinema showcases, will mark the Russian invasion's first anniversary as well as anti-regime protests in Iran with new feature films and documentaries.

US actor Kristen Stewart ("Spencer"), head of the jury for the Golden and Silver Bear top prizes, told reporters it was "an enormous opportunity to have a hand in highlighting beautiful things" in the face of global turmoil.

"It's the job of an artist to take a disgusting and ugly thing and sort of transmute it and put it through your body and pump out something more response to the world that's falling apart around us," she said.

Artistic director Carlo Chatrian said the festival stood with "the suffering population, the millions who left Ukraine and the artists (who) have remained defending the country and continue filming the war," adding that it was a "special honour" to welcome Zelensky digitally.

Penn will appear on stage at the opening gala in the German capital and introduce Zelensky who will speak via video stream, organisers said.

The two-time Oscar winner, who was filming in Kyiv at the start of the Russian onslaught, will on Friday premiere "Superpower", tracking Zelensky's transformation from comedian to president to war hero.

"Zelensky was two completely different creatures from one day to the next," Penn told entertainment industry magazine Variety this week about the impact of the invasion. "He was a spirit in waiting."

Beyond movie screenings, the Berlinale plans panel discussions with embattled directors and red-carpet protests in a show of "solidarity" with the people of Iran and Ukraine.

Animation back in force

The Berlinale has barred filmmakers, companies and reporters with direct ties to the Russian or Iranian governments from taking part in the event, including its sprawling European Film Market, a key movie rights exchange for the industry.

Hollywood actors Peter Dinklage, Anne Hathaway and Marisa Tomei will later Thursday present romantic comedy "She Came to Me", the first of nearly 300 new movies from around the world to screen during the 11-day event.

Nineteen films will vie for the main awards, including British-US co-production "Manodrome" featuring Jesse Eisenberg and Adrien Brody in a thriller about an Uber driver who is lured into a cult while he is expecting his first child.

Two Asian animated pictures will also join the running, "Art College 1994" by China's Liu Jian and Makoto Shinkai's "Suzume", the first Japanese anime to compete at the Berlinale since Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" clinched the Golden Bear in 2002.

Gold for Spielberg

Three-time Academy Award winner Steven Spielberg is to collect an honorary Golden Bear for his life's work, spotlighted in a retrospective.

British actor Helen Mirren will unveil the keenly awaited "Golda" in which she stars as Israel's only female prime minister, Golda Meir.

And Vicky Krieps, the acclaimed Luxembourg-born actor from "Phantom Thread" and "Corsage", will present her turn as renowned Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann in a biopic by veteran German director Margarethe von Trotta.

One-third of the films in competition are by women, who make up 40 per cent of all directors represented at the festival.

"Love to Love You", a documentary about disco queen Donna Summer, who defined an era on the dance floor and helped inspire Beyonce's latest album "Renaissance", will have its world premiere.

The film was co-directed by Summer's daughter, Brooklyn Sudano, and features never-before-seen home videos.

The Berlinale ranks with Cannes and Venice among Europe's top film festivals. It will hand out the top prizes on 25 February before wrapping up the next day with screenings of popular movies from this year's selection.