Berlinale 2021: What will happen to the festival during the pandemic?

What is missing most of all in these gloomy cinema times is the buzz. You can translate it quite literally: that buzzing or hum of excitement when a gripping new film has just seen the light of day.

The buzz buzzes best at festivals. It starts with the spectators who were able to get hold of a ticket for the gala. Immediately afterwards, they rave about the bars or cafés, are influencers for everyone else who hang on their lips and run off to get more ideas. Film buyers from all over the world perk up their ears, run after them and frantically talk to their bosses on the phone. Initial reviews appear and are passed around, full of approval or indignation. Did we just see the next Golden Bear? The international jury is looking in parallel and is sure to be talking in the back room.

That was sometimes the case at the Berlinale, that is actually how it is at all good festivals. What would actually be an insider thing – the discovery and evaluation of new films for the world market and for the annals of cinema history – becomes a public matter. At least for a few nice hectic days. An event where many can have their say, a show run by the stars, a showdown of creative ideas, almost a sporting event in the headlines of the city and maybe even the world. And in the end there are winners.

It has been clear that the Berlinale will be divided into two parts this year – a virtual event at the beginning of March for film buyers, jurors and journalists, a second, non-virtual festival in June for the cinemas, the stars and the Berliners – is also the biggest Loser of this emergency edition. It’s the buzz. Because he lives from the simultaneity of events, from the bear race in real time, from the excitement of the moment.

The buzz would be more necessary than ever to bring the cinema back into consciousness as a community experience, to break up the loneliness of streaming, to turn the insider discussions of film connoisseurs into talk of the town again. There are still festivals, they stream around the world – but nobody knows how to save the buzz in pandemic times.

Five jurors meet in Berlin, the sixth is under house arrest and has to stay in the home theater

That is also the short and somewhat sad conclusion of a press conference in which the Minister of State for Culture Monika Grütters and the management duo of the Berlinale, the managing director Mariette Rissenbeek and the artistic director Carlo Chatrian, once again explained their already known plans for the two-part Berlinale on Monday morning. And asked for an excuse in advance: “It sure won’t be the best festival,” said Chatrian. “Only the best under the circumstances.”

There was a lot of talk about “positive signals” that they wanted to send even in difficult times, and that it was downright “our duty” (Grütters) not to simply cancel, but to dare to do a kind of emergency edition. One of the most important things: to set an example for the suffering cinema operators in summer, to get the audience in the mood for the return of cinema and normalcy. That should happen from July 9th to 20th, but not in the Berlinale Palast, but in normal Berlin cinemas. For the glamor, there are a few red carpets there too.

From March 1st to 5th, however, it will be purely virtual, when the international film community will be called in front of the screens to view, buy and sell all types of films together in the European Film Market and hopefully prepare theatrical releases in many countries. where that might soon be possible. A jury that meets in Berlin and at the same time evaluates the competition that Carlo Chatrian has put together with his team is supposed to help.

If things go bad, no one is interested in the festival this year and the bear will be awarded in the back room

Which films will take part in the competition, whether any big names have embarked on the strange double game – that is still a secret. But at least there are now the names of the jurors. All of them are previous bear winners from the category: Mohammad Rasoulof (Iran), Nadav Lapid (Israel), Adina Pintilie (Romania), Ildikó Enyedi (Hungary), Gianfranco Rosi (Italy) and Jasmila Žbanić (Bosnia and Herzegovina). Rasoulof, who is currently condemned to house arrest in Iran because of his attitude critical of the regime, will be watching in his own home theater in Tehran, while the others will gather in Berlin. This jury then also awards prizes, including the bears, which are attached to the winners like shiny labels and are intended to help them make their difficult return to world cinema.

Whether the critics will also see all of these films or only some of them, whether they should report in full in March or in June, whether anyone beyond the jury will have an overview of the competition and thus have a say when it comes to the quality of the winners – all unclear. This is mainly due to the fact that the individual competition participants should decide for themselves whether they want to show their films to the press as early as March. The interest in this is low, you can already hear from the industry – many are afraid that there will be no buzz, that there will be no support from the audience and that only a few bad-humored reviews will leak out.

The concern is understandable. But it can mean that nobody knows how to publicize the bear race this year. How to create excitement, stir up discussions about films, how to counter the impression that there are only a few films with bear labels in the back room, for which everyone else has to wait until summer.

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