Clooney opens Berlin film fest with spotlight on refugees

George Clooney opened the Berlin film festival Thursday with Europe's refugee influx in the spotlight, saying he would meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel about lending star power to help with the crisis.

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The 11-day Berlinale, one of the top three cinema showcases in Europe along with Cannes and Venice, kicked off with a screening of "Hail, Caesar!", Joel and Ethan Coen's send-up of Tinseltown's 1950s golden age.

Clooney came to the German capital with his wife Amal, a Lebanese-born human rights lawyer, and co-stars Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton and Josh Brolin.

He told reporters he would meet Merkel and, separately, a group of asylum seekers Friday "to talk about and ask what messages and what things we can do... to help".

Although the Berlinale is spotlighting around a dozen films focused on refugees, Clooney admitted it would take time before Hollywood would turn its attention to such stories.

"The unfortunate thing about the film community is we react to situations much more than we lead the way. News stories have to continue to happen and then scripts are written and it takes a couple years before people are actually making films about it," he told reporters.

"It's also very difficult to just make a subject film. You have to have a reason -- a character and a reason to make it."

Why make movies

When asked a critical question about Hollywood escapism after a press screening of "Hail, Caesar!", a light-hearted romp, Joel Coen said filmmakers were under no obligation to deal with the most pressing issues of their time.

"To point the finger and say, you should be telling this particular story -- it's a misunderstanding about how movies get written and made. Are those stories important? Yes. Does it make sense to sort of say, 'you're a public figure, you tell stories, why aren't you telling that story?' is a funny question, frankly."

However he noted that he and Ethan Coen as presidents of the Cannes film festival jury last year awarded the top prize to the French movie "Dheepan", which offered an unflinching look at the plight of three Sri Lankan refugees in a violent Paris suburb.

"I think it had a lot to contribute to that discussion," he said.

Three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep is serving as president of the Berlin prize jury, leading a panel including British actor Clive Owen. They will award the Golden Bear top prize to one of 18 contenders from around the world on February 20.

Owen said they would aim to "champion somebody who we think will benefit hugely from (the award) and could make a huge difference and further their career and give them the opportunity to make more good important films," he said.

Last year top honours went to Iranian dissident filmmaker Jafar Panahi for "Taxi", which he had to make in secret.

Tickets for asylum seekers

As Europe endures the largest refugee influx since World War II, with 1.1 million asylum seekers arriving in Germany last year, the theme of migration will dominate the festival.

Italian documentary director Gianfranco Rosi, who won at Venice three years ago, will enter the competition with "Fire at Sea" about Lampedusa, a Mediterranean island on the front line of the crisis.

And off screen, hundreds of tickets have been set aside for asylum seekers at the festival accompanied by volunteers and cinema-goers are being encouraged to donate money to refugee causes.

Among the world premieres generating buzz ahead of the start is a new adaptation of the international bestseller "Alone in Berlin", Hans Fallada's 1947 novel based on a true story.

The Nazi-era thriller sees Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson play a German couple who risk their lives to mount a resistance campaign against Hitler after losing their only son in the war.

Big crowds are also expected for "Genius", the feature debut by British theatre director Michael Grandage starring Colin Firth as literary editor Max Perkins, who published some of the 20th century's greatest American writers.

Jude Law plays Thomas Wolfe, Nicole Kidman his lover and muse Aline Bernstein, with Dominic West portraying Ernest Hemingway and Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald.


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