In Praise of Cinema for Peace: and The 60th Berlin Film Festival

04/19/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Firstly, it must be said, that even if many tend to think of film as entertainment, as a business, it is also extremely political, even if times by accident. Not just the content, but the jobs (and currently loss of due to the financial crisis) which employ thousands of people around the world, the exports dollars that entertainment brings in, as well as the relationships between countries that are created, or broken, are all linked in some way to Cinema. But films can also change the world, and it starts by affecting one individual at a time, reminding us we are all parts of a whole, world citizens first and foremost.

This fact was noticeable at the Cinema for Peace dinner and awards ceremony in Berlin last Monday night, as Mikhail Gorbachev walked slowly up to the podium to present awards along with Leonardo di Caprio. It was not lost on this mostly German crowd, that a mere 20 years ago, Berlin itself was still divided, and Gorbachev had opened the way for a reunited country. The films awarded were not extremely commercial works, in fact, many were difficult to see, having limited distribution, yet worthy of so much more attention. And they came from many parts of the world, demonstrating the international power of cinema.

The clips from the films shown were often disturbing and I had to close my eyes during the re-enactments of the stoning of women, could not take my eyes off of the horrifying and infamous photographic image of the young Vietnamese girl, her skin burned with napalm. But the room was full of hope. The bankers from Stuttgart and the German Gala-attending elite were mixed in with filmmakers who were invited in celebration of the work they carried out, at times in the most difficult of situations. The money raised would do some good and help promote these hard to make films to be made.

It hit home to watch Joe Berlinger's documentary, "Crude" as I come from Texas and know the oil business well (and know the damage it can do), and it was well deserving of the International Green Award. But my favorite "personality" that evening was a man, the "star" of the documentary "Sergio", who is no longer among the living, Sergio Viera de Mello, the UN High Commissioner who was killed in a horrific bombing, and who had dedicated his life to trying to make this world a safer place for all. One of the highlights of the event was listening to the mesmerizing voice of Soname Yangchen as she sang, a song of healing. It reminds us that through creativity, such as cinema and music, we can bridge our differences. I also have to say that the dinner was enjoyable (as I speak almost no German) in part because I was seated next to the French producer of Yann Arthus Bertrand's glorious film "Home, also nominated. So I had someone to speak French with, who was also discovering the event for the first time. Denis Carot explained to me how he came to film from a theatre background, and his enthusiasm for the work he does could not be missed. These kinds of fortuitous meetings at festivals remind of why we are attending festivals in the first place.

Along with raising money for worthy causes, the Cinema for Peace Foundation has produced a short film, in cooperation with Richard Curtis, called "The Robin Hood Tax", to promote the taxation of financial transactions to create a fund to fight poverty and environmental destruction, as well as promote social change. I hope the many bankers in attendance, as well as those back in the US, understand that they have to do their part in creating more balance in this crazy world laid naked by the financial crisis, so that their profit-making does some good for the planet and humanity.

The list of films selected for the 2010 Cinema for Peace competition was quite long, which could only serve to remind us that so many filmmakers are out there doing good work, but also that there is so much more work which needs to be done. As one presenter said, they hoped that soon there would be no more need for a Cinema for Peace award. The Jury is truly international, made up of those from the film industry but also journalists, and leaders in the world of development and non-profits.

Despite the financial crisis, the Berlinale saw a more buoyant market, and as films were being made on more reasonable budgets, the acquisitions were also (at least for the more commercial and standout works) finding buyers. There were fewer projects announced as well, but as one sales agent stated during a presentation, there had been simply too many films out there in the first place. Maybe fewer means higher quality and less waste...let's hope so.

There is a group of people very hard at work at film festivals around the world, who I want to highlight here. They put on festivals, select and critique films, and do something that I once did, and (which almost killed me), seeing five to six films per day, and writing about them. Then going back home and putting together (often on shoestring budgets), events which bring cinema which would never other wise be seen by local audiences, to people around the world. One reason I both love (and hate because it is so damn tiring) film festivals, are seeing friends and colleagues who I know care about cinema as much as I do. And we meet and re-meet in various places, new friendships and contacts are made, some which have endured decades. I want to take a minute and thank these people for making those few moments between meetings and screenings worthwhile, people who you may not know well, whose faces are not recognizable except to those of us who share a glass of wine between screenings and get into an upset defending one film or another...the festival programmers, film critics and friends without which few of us would find moments of joy amidst the mayhem: fellow programmers Jack Vermee from Vancouver Film festival who last night introduced me to some of the hardest working guys at Berlin this year, film critics Robert Koehler, and Nick James, Carl Spence (with whom I once shared an office until my post-it mania drove him crazy) of the Seattle Film Festival and last but not least, Norwegian producer Gudny Hummelvoll, who I met over twenty years ago when she came to attend film school in the U.S. and who has helped to make sure I am always taken care of, and who can multitask, producing films, raising children, being a great wife and loyal friend, all while staying up until 4 a.m. with a bunch of crazy Norwegians! Thanks for all the good times, and see you in Cannes!

Vivian Norris de Montaigu writes about Cinema and is producing feature film sand documentaries about important social issues. She is based in Paris and is the founder of Vigilante VNM Productions.