The Berlinale film festival begins

The Arab Spring steals the show at the Berlin Film Festival, where esoteric flicks go head to head with Hollywood fare.

People line up to buy tickets for the 62nd Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin on Monday. The February 9-19 Berlinale kicks off the European festival season. Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters
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The 62nd edition of the Berlin Film Festival, opening today, sees esoteric world cinema going head to head with potential mainstream blockbusters.

Discerning art-house fans will salivate at the prospect of seeing the new films by Alain Gomis (Today), Wang Quan'an (White Deer Plain), Christian Petzold (Barbara), Brillante Mendoza (Captive) and Ursula Meier (Sister), which are all included in the official competition. The jury president Mike Leigh and the rest of his team are in for some eclectic viewing as they try to decide which of the almost two dozen titles in the competition should go home with the coveted Golden Bear.

Tickets for the English-language films are set to sell out fast. These include the period drama Bel Ami, starring Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman and Kristin Scott Thomas, Stephen Daldry's Oscar-nominated Extremely Loud and Incredible Close, starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, as well as Shadow Dancer starring Clive Owen.

A star likely to make waves at the festival is Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol's assassin Lea Seydoux. The French actress appears in both the opening night film Farewell, My Queen, about the last days of Marie Antoinette, and Sister, in which she plays a young lady looking after her family at a ski resort.

No doubt the cameras will be flashing crazily when Angelina Jolie rocks up the red carpet to celebrate her directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, a story of a doomed love affair between a Serb and Bosnian during Yugoslavia's civil war. The film recently opened in the US to mixed reviews.

Turn to the Berlinale Specials section for some must-see documentaries, including Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, an excellent film on the dissident Chinese artist. It premiered to critical acclaim at Sundance last month. Also unveiling are Werner Herzog's documentary series Death Row and Kevin MacDonald's film Marley, about the famed reggae star.

The festival will also celebrate the career of Meryl Streep. In addition to the German premiere of her latest Oscar-nominated role, playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, there will be screenings of some of her greatest cinematic performances: in Kramer vs Kramer, Out of Africa, A Prairie Home Companion, Silkwood, Sophie's Choice and The Bridges of Madison County.

All these are just the tip of the iceberg - almost 400 films will be shown at the festival. Often the best movies are those found in the Panorama section, home to independent cinema, and in the Forum section, which celebrates more experimental films. There are also sections aimed at children, food lovers and German films.

A focus of this year's festival is the Arab Spring, with the programme examining its developments through documentaries both about the Arab world and by directors from the region. This is in addition to the latest Middle Eastern films made since the protests began.

Films being shown include Death for Sale by the Moroccan director Faouzi Bensaïdi; the Egyptian filmmaker Hanan Abdalla's In the Shadow of a Man, featuring four women giving their perspective on the Tahrir Square demonstrations; La Vierge, les Coptes et Moi (The Virgin, the Copts and Me), which explores the alleged appearances of the Virgin Mary against the background of the Egyptian revolution; Sally El Hosaini's drama My Brother the Devil, set in London's East End and Sean McAllister's The Reluctant Revolutionary, a documentary about a Yemeni tour operator.

Egyptian journalists are the focus of two documentaries: In Words of Witness, about the young Cairo female journalist Heba Afify, and Althawra … Khabar (Reporting … A Revolution), which looks at the part played by the independent media on the revolution.

Spanish directors seem to be concerned with what is happening in the western Sahara. Pedro Pérez Rosado's documentary Wilaya is about a woman living in Spain who returns to the Saharan refugee camp where she grew up. Javier Bardem will also be in town to talk about the documentary he produced, Hijos de las nubes, La ûltima Colonia (Sons of the Clouds, The Last Colony). Directed by Alvaro Longoria, it's the story of a forgotten colonial war in the western Sahara.

Al Juma Al Akheira (The Last Friday), directed by Yahya Alabdallah, is a Jordanian and UAE co-production about a taxi driver trying to bring some order to his failed existence in Amman.

One of the most interesting and unique experiences at the festival will be the retrospective on the legendary German-Russian film studio Mezhrabpom-Film. Founded in 1922, the studio was a co-production between Moisei Aleipikov, a Russian film producer, and Will Münzenberg, a German communist. The studio made some 600 films before being brutally ended by Hitler's and Stalin's regimes. The retrospective, titled The Red Dream Factory, will present more than 40 films made by the studio, accompanied by live bands.

The Berlin Film Festival is one that's unique in the film world, largely because it's the only A-list festival that takes place in a major capital. Often, events of this kind can feel like an exclusive club, but both on-screen and off, the Berlinale reminds cinema enthusiasts of any age that history and politics are often the fuel for the best drama.

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