The world might have become a raw and isolating place for many, but in the film that opened the Berlin Film Festival on Thursday, Danish director Lone Scherfig seeks to show that humans are essentially driven by a sense of compassion.
Speaking at a press conference to mark the world premiere of her modern-day drama “The Kindness of Strangers,” Scherfig said the film “confirms that the world is a very tough place” but also shows that there is “light” and “a sense of community.”
Set around a Russian restaurant in New York, “The Kindness of Strangers” is one of 17 movies vying for the top award at the Berlin event, the Golden Bear for best picture.
Scherfig, 59, is one of a record seven female filmmakers who have been selected to screen their new movies in the 69th Berlinale’s showcase competition.
“The Kindness of Strangers” has an international cast including Zoe Kazan – the granddaughter of legendary US theatre director Elia Kazan.
Kazan plays Clara, a young mother who flees to New York in a bid to escape her abusive police officer husband. There, she meets a group of people also struggling with upheavals in their lives.
During her time in New York, Clara experiences moments of kindness from others in the city’s brutal urban jungle, including those who have nothing themselves.
“The characters are compassionate and kind,” said Scherfig, adding: “It is impressive how many people go out of their way to help those they don’t even know. It is worth making a film about it.”
The film contrasts life in New York’s soup kitchens with the city’s often more luxury lifestyles.
“The Kindness of Strangers” also stars France’s Tahar Rahim, and Britain’s Andrea Riseborough and Bill Nighy.
“I think that any film that unites us rather than (focuses on) those things that divide us, and treats us as compassionate, is essential with the current climate,” said Nighy, referring to what he said were the efforts of some politicians to divide the population.
“People get along fine,” Nighy said.
Scherfig began her directing career in the 1980s, working in television and in the advertising business.
It was not until 2000 that she won critical acclaim for her romantic comedy “Italian for Beginners.”
Nine years later, she consolidated her career with “An Education,” about a teenager coming to terms with life in post-World War II Britain.
Scherfig’s first appearance at the Berlin Film Festival was 18 years ago at the first Berlinale under its director Dieter Kosslick.
“The Kindness of Strangers” is being screened during Kosslick’s last year as chief of the Berlinale, which shows about 400 movies a year, making it the world’s biggest film festival.
Scherfig said that while the characters in the film never express a political opinion, it does address bigger political issues by contrasting the lives of those who have almost nothing with those enjoying even a modicum of luxury.
Kosslick has said the motto for this year’s Berlinale is “The personal is political,” using the slogan of the feminist movement of the late 1960s.
Most of the 17 films in the competition look at the social consequences of changes in the world.
Indeed, the exploitation of children, the breakup of traditional family structures, gender equality and current political life represent the key themes that are woven through the festival’s programme.
“The world is quite egotistical at the moment,” said Oscar-winning French actress Juliette Binoche, who heads up this year’s six-member Berlinale jury.
“A lot of rich countries are closing their borders,” Binoche told a press conference in Berlin.
Binoche was speaking just days after US President Donald Trump stepped up his campaign to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico during his State of the Union address to Congress in Washington.
Speaking about the Berlinale’s reputation as the most political of the world’s top film festivals, Binoche said: “I think it needs to be human first of all. If it is human it is political.”