The Berlinale was back in person again this year after a digital offering due to the pandemic in 2021. Festival directors Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek heralded the decision to return to an in-person festival stating, “The need for a physical festival experience and face-to-face encounters is strongly evident in both the industry and the public. The experiences of the last months have shown that on-location events can take place safely and successfully, and how important they are for dialogue and exchange.”
While this all sounds good on paper, the reality was quite starkly different. Due to the lockdowns in Berlin and strict COVID-19 hygiene rules, Potsdamer Platz, the geographical heart of the festival, was under strict security. Buses were used for testing and industry-only areas were accessible only with wristbands granted upon showing vaccination status and testing, a rule which was oddly not required for the general public. The overall feeling of the festival was subdued. While the press releases from Chatrian and Rissenbeek talked about the importance of human connection and butts-in-seats at the cinema, the reality was a rather nervous gathering, rather than joyful. Where the Berlinale website says it is a place of non-discrimination, it is interesting that it decided to be so inflexible with its approach to the festival in the midst of a massive winter outbreak, inherently excluding those more vulnerable to the virus.
Other festivals around the globe have decided that a good way forward during this transition period of the pandemic is to provide a hybrid festival with both in-person and digital offerings. This was summarily dismissed by the Berlinale, with only in-person offerings allowed. This obstinate approach backfired as largely the industry events were sparsely attended with many long-time attendees choosing not to risk the festival this year.
From a personal viewpoint, even as a healthy 30-something, I felt quite nervous attending the festival in-person due to the high infection rates. Considering even in a good year, film festivals are breeding places for the flu, it felt a bit foolish to press my luck with a COVID-19 infection rate in the 1000s. A digital offering for press screenings in particular would have been much appreciated, and it boggles the mind a bit as to why this was not offered considering the restrictions on travel that were still in place throughout the winter. Is it not in the best interest of the festival for the press to report on films, regardless of whether they were there in-person or not? Apparently to Chatrian and Rissenbeek, putting on a traditional film festival is more important than many other factors; but perhaps this should not be surprising considering the rather lackluster changes that have been made to the festival since their appointments as directors. One can only hope that they soon learn that the key to running a successful international festival is to be flexible and creative and to move past the strict ideas of what should encompass a film festival, and rather think about how to make things better, more interesting, and safe for attendees going into the future.