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Berlinale: Cate Blanchett’s Rohingya marvel and Riz Ahmed’s breakup

  • Published at 01:53 pm April 11th, 2020
Cate Blanchett Table Talk
From left, Karim Aïnouz, Nardjes Asli, Cate Blanchett, Maryam Zaree, and Florian Weghorn during Berlinale Talents Table Talks on February 24 Dhaka Tribune

As a participant of Berlinale Talents this year, I was lucky the festival took place at all, right at the brink of the coronavirus outbreak.

Berlin sleeps during the day and parties all night, like a funky vampire— more Edward Cullen, less Dracula. For days on end, the idle sun tugs higher a quilt of clouds, hungover like the native club hoppers. Down below, Berlin streets are damp and so are the overcoats of the stern-looking film buffs at Berlinale (February 20- March 1), one of the world’s top three annual film festivals. 

As a participant of Berlinale Talents this year, I was lucky the festival took place at all, right at the brink of the coronavirus outbreak. Back then, the virus wasn’t on everyone’s mind, except for the Italians, who were cautious not to shake hands or hug. The Chinese had already withdrawn their participation from the European Film Market, that takes place simultaneously. Untethered by these seemingly minor hiccups, the show went on in full swing. 

Rohingya refugees give Cate Blanchett hope for humanity

There were daylong talks every day for a whole week at Berlinale Talents with some of the biggest names in the industry. From Helen Mirren to Wim Wenders, the talks provided a wealth of insights into these incredible minds. Two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett had one such table talk with the talents about migration and immigration. 

The discussion stemmed from her new TV show Stateless, which she also executive produced. The series premiered at Berlinale Series and is inspired by true events at an immigration detention center in Australia. The story revolves around a woman escaping a cult (Cate Blanchett), a refugee fleeing with his family (Fayssal Bazzi), a father trapped in a dead-end job (Jai Courtney), and a bureaucrat on the verge of a national scandal.

Blanchett was as eloquent in person as she is on screen. About her character in Stateless, she said that she didn’t want to be the star of the show or perform at all, but if her position helped get more people to care about the issue, she didn’t mind a little singing and dancing. 

“There’s a strong theme of identity and transformation in her,” she said. “She seems to be in an amateur dramatic society that turns out to be a performance cult. It’s about becoming the best ‘you’ possible in a ‘quarantined’ space. The way cults work is that they separate you from your family, your past and your sense of identity... The way cults work is very similar to the way our society is working- separating people from their sense of humanity. In order to build a nation, we’re building borders and keeping ‘the other’ out, making a country great again, but for whom?” 

I wanted to ask her about her 2018 experience at the Rohingya camp, but she brought the topic up herself. She recalled the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, especially the children, with great fondness. “I find hope in the face of despair,” she said. “One of the bravest, most active, most difficult things to do and I’m so full of admiration about the dignity the refugees I’ve met have shown in inhumane conditions. Many governments around the world have welcomed millions of refugees, yet Australia is debating the fate of 800 people, spending $9 billion since 2013 just to keep them out… The hope they (Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh) displayed gives me hope for the human race actually.” 

Riz Ahmed ends his toxic relationship with Britain

The clash of civilizations was a staple at the press conferences where only the Talent Press had access to. There was Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Salma Hayek, Elle Fanning, Jeremy Irons—I could go on forever. But one star outshone all in projecting our sentiments—Riz Ahmed (The Reluctant Fundamentalist, The Night Of). 

The British Pakistani actor who is famous for playing marginalized Muslim immigrants, wants his new film Mogul Mowgli to be seen as “art before activism”. Ahmed described the film, which premiered in the Panorama section of Berlinale, as “unapologetically brown”. The film is about a British Pakistani rapper, who flies home to the UK to visit the family before his first international tour. He is suddenly struck down by an autoimmune disease, threatening to stop his ambitions in its tracks.

Ahmed, who also wrote the screenplay, described his character’s disease as “identity crisis playing at a molecular level.” He expressed his dismay at the way Islam is portrayed in films in the west. “Usually Islam in cinema is an engine to a thriller, it’s a genre engine,” he said. Giving an example of how seeing someone praying through a telescope or a binocular is used to instill fear, he commented that his film “tells our story like it’s never been told before.”

The actor, along with director Bassam Tariq, drew from the vast literary canon of Islam. “Our Islam is ‘Disco Islam.’ There’s a kind of Disco Islamic aesthetic that we have in this film. We have colors, poetry, ghazals, Sufi poetry. You have these rich traditions that are actually great cinematic opportunities.”

Some of the songs in the film were later released in an album called The Long Goodbye. “It’s a breakup album about being dumped by Britain,” he said “It’s an album about what it feels like to be rejected by a country you think is your own. It’s not just in Britain. It seems to be a ‘global epidemic’ right now where countries are rejecting people who are part of the DNA of the society. It’s a breakup from a toxic relationship.”  

Looking back at these talks, the words “quarantined” and “global epidemic” jump out to remind us of the present reality, far gloomier than any Berlin winter. When we can have another big festival with red carpets, table talks, workshops, and press conferences without a care in the world is still undetermined. During Berlinale, we had no idea how in the weeks following the festival, some of the participants would have to live in a horror movie with an unpredictable storyline of overnight evacuations from hostels or of being stuck in foreign lands, away from imperiled loved ones. In retrospect, it must have been the calm before an unprecedented storm.

Sadia Khalid is Showtime editor, Dhaka Tribune

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