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The 67th Berlinale

Iran and the Surreal Case of Suitcase-Gate


Steven Yates
Film Journalist based in Berlin , Germany

Apparently, the most looked-up word in the online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2016 was “surreal”. This was an appropriate choice despite events last year being no more surreal than recent years. However, with the shock election of Donald Trump in the U.S. Presidential Elections of November 2016, a new paranoia in world politics emerged overnight.

The Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) has been very supportive of Iranian film directors against the political situation there which it felt had often held back freedom of expression. This has been reflected in the highest accolades of Golden and Silver Bear awards given to films from the Persian land. With Trump’s rhetoric against Muslim countries, Iran suddenly faces vulnerability with The West again, particularly the U.S. superpower and its perceived allies.

Parallel to this, the relationship between the Berlinale and Iran took an unexpected turn at the end of 2016. Iranian filmmakers usually submit their films to the Berlinale via the Internet but another unofficial selection procedure was by suitcase. When a suitcase, carried by Anke Leweke, was intercepted at Tehran airport, inside were found 60 videos of films from hopeful Iranian directors. Mrs. Leweke, a German Law Graduate, is part of the selection committee of the Berlin Film Festival and also a consultant to the Iranian section of the Berlinale. The interception and subsequent confiscation of Leweke’s suitcase and its contents has now led to the somewhat “surreal” reality that Iran will have no films represented at this year’s Berlinale which begins on 9th February.

Every year the Berlinale sends its agents to a target country to watch the films during a short time without meeting the producers and then submit a number of them to the festival. However, Mrs. Leweke arranges meetings with the directors then selects the films by visiting the studios, even commenting on them in the editing room. Films, like Reza Dormishian’s I’m Not Angry! (2014) or Taxi (2015) by Jafar Panahi, leave the country without having a screening license in Iran. The authorities had already protested against these films that were considered anti-Iranian rather than critical. Meantime, and likely adding to the provocation, the Berlinale lets the cast and crew of these films take part in the red carpet ceremony that precedes the premiere screenings. Taxi would win the Golden Bear (Best Film) at the 2015 Berlinale.

After Iran’s controversies of 2009, there has been an increasing tendency to select the films by looking at their political aspects.  According to the Head of Iran Cinematic Organization, Dr. Hojatollah Ayoubi: “The German Minister of Culture (Mr. Siegmund Ehrmann) had notified in his last speech at the Berlinale’s opening ceremony that it is a political film festival, and that their selection has a political side to it.” This was interpreted as an invitation for the political cinematic opposition to the Islamic Republic, giving awards to films that depict a dark image of life in the Iranian society. Dr. Hojatollah Ayoubi further pointed out in his letter to the festival’s director Dieter Kosslick: “I, like millions of other cinephiles, would have liked Berlinale to be a reminiscent of art and culture, but you proved that you prefer politics rather than art.”

One well-known Iranian who also spoke in defense of the traditional Iranian representation in cinema was the actress Merila Zareyi: “For the love of God, do not make our country shameful by these films. What do the foreigners think of us when watching these films? We’ve had achievements in nuclear power, chemistry, physics, mathematics and medicine but the society has regressed.”

Although the expanding of the internet has enabled many filmmakers to submit their films by encoded links or related websites of the Berlinale, Mrs. Luweke preferred to transport them in a suitcase. Her frequent visits to the city streets, under the premise of recording personal meetings with the underground Iranian directors, allowed more time for meetings with the young filmmakers, selecting works with the considered notion of demonizing their country, a kind of external cultural influence with the aid of internal capacity. Now Mrs. Luweke has returned home empty-handed, without a suitcase that has been an alibi for connecting with the beneficiaries in Iran.

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