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Berlin filmfest rolls out red carpet for women trailblazers

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Caleb Landry Jones and Andrea Riseborough in a scene from the movie The Kindness Of Strangers by Lone Scherfig, which opens the Berlinale film festival, which runs from Feb 7 to 17.

Berlin

EUROPE'S first major film festival of the year, the Berlinale, kicked off on Thursday, making a statement against entertainment industry sexism by welcoming an unprecedented line-up of female directors.

The 11-day event prides itself on being the most politically engaged of the A-list cinema showcases, presenting 400 movies from around the world, most on hard-hitting topical themes including rising extremism and economic exploitation.

But its red carpet promises a steady stream of glamour too with Christian Bale, Diane Kruger, Tilda Swinton, Catherine Deneuve, Jonah Hill, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck and Juliette Binoche, this year's jury president, all awaited in the frosty German capital.

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Binoche, 54, will lead a six-member panel that will choose the winner of the prestigious Golden and Silver Bear prizes, to be awarded at a gala ceremony on Feb 16.

Last year, with the #MeToo movement roiling the industry, the innovative docudrama Touch Me Not about sexual intimacy by Romania's Adina Pintilie clinched top honours.

For the first time this year, seven out of the 17 contenders will be women - a more than 40-per cent share that eclipses rivals such as Cannes and Venice, which have come under fire as chummy men's clubs.

Binoche welcomed the more diverse selection, saying it was long overdue and sent a message beyond the world of cinema.

"I think a lot of men don't get how women for generations have had to take a backseat," she told this week's Der Spiegel magazine. "But (Berlinale chief) Dieter Kosslick assured me that he made his choices because they're good films, not just because women directed them."

Denmark's Lone Scherfig, who made the Oscar-nominated coming-of-age tale An Education in 2009, will start the festival with the premiere of her film The Kindness Of Strangers.

The bittersweet drama stars Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick) as a mother of two who has to rely on her fellow New Yorkers for help, in a cast including Andrea Riseborough (The Death Of Stalin) and Bill Nighy (Love Actually).

Scherfig, 59, said she was proud her film would be opening the last Berlinale under Kosslick, who is passing on the baton after 18 years.

"It's a milestone edition so I'm really looking forward to presenting the film there," Scherfig told film industry bible Variety.

Polish veteran Agnieszka Holland will unveil the Stalin-era thriller Mr Jones starring James Norton (Happy Valley), while France's Agnes Varda will premiere a new autobiographical documentary out of competition.

Acclaimed French director Francois Ozon will present his controversial new drama By The Grace Of God based on real-life cases of sex abuse allegedly committed by a French priest.

Kosslick, 70, is credited with expanding the Berlinale and boosting its international profile with high-wattage guests ranging from the Rolling Stones to festival regulars Swinton and George Clooney.

"Our fans have stayed true to us and grown so much that we can say we're the world's biggest film festival in terms of audience," said Kosslick. Around a half-million tickets are sold each year.

He will be handing over the reins at a time of growing competition from streaming services but said he saw scope for cinemas to "co-exist" and thrive.

Netflix will enter the Berlin race for the first time with gay marriage drama Elisa and Marcela by Spain's Isabel Coixet, based on a true story.

For his last edition, Kosslick has opted to make a parting political statement, offering to buy tickets for leaders of the far-right Alternative for Germany party to a screening of Who Will Write Our History?, a documentary about the Warsaw Ghetto. AFP