The plight of refugees fleeing to Europe - the subject of Gianfranco Rosi's 2016 Golden Bear-winning, and Oscar-nominated documentary Fire at Sea - takes center stage again at the Berlinale this year. Films across the program shine a spotlight on migrant stories - from Aki Kaurismaki's competition title The Other Side of Hope and local comedy hit Welcome to Germany to numerous documentaries and short films.
But Berlin also is trying to help those who have already made the journey across the Mediterranean. The festival has initiated a series of programs aimed at connecting refugees in Berlin with locals and the film community, including arranging for 20 refugees to take part as trainees at the European Film Market and other venues, and hosting a movie mentoring project, which pairs volunteers with refugees to go to the movies.
"We initially thought refugees would be most interested in seeing films from their home countries, so we suggested movies mainly from the Middle East," said Adrienne Boros, who coordinates Berlinale's refugee programs. "But the refugees told us they wanted to see German films to find out about the society and culture where they live now."
Case in point: Wajd Alshami, a refugee from Syria, who came to Germany in 2015, traveling via Turkey. Saturday night, he went to Bye Bye Germany, Sam Garbarski's drama about concentration camp survivors living in post-war Germany.
"Back home, I mostly watched action films," he told THR, speaking through an interpreter, "but I'm interested to have any activity at all, to be honest. To be out and meet people."
Alshami went to the film as part of the Begegnungschor, a Berlin choir made up of pairs of Germans and recent arrivals. "We call ourselves old Berliners and new Berliners, we don't discriminate," said Annette Ruck, a choir member who also attended the screening as a movie mentor. She said the choir picked Bye Bye Germany because its political themes would resonate with both the old and new Berliners in the group.
"Here is safety and you can live in peace," Alshami said about life in Berlin. "If the war ends, I'd go back to visit Syria, but Germany is my home now."