BERLIN Iranian director Jafar Panahi was in the spotlight at the opening of the Berlin film festival on Thursday, with an empty chair at the jury press conference a reminder of the risks sometimes involved in making movies.
Panahi had been invited to sit on the seven-member jury which decides on the prize-winners when the 10-day cinema showcase ends on February 19.
But in December he was sentenced to six years in prison and banned from making films or traveling abroad for 20 years.
"We are still hoping that he will be able to come," said jury president and actress Isabella Rossellini. "We haven't given up. He is a very big presence even if he is not here."
Inviting Panahi, whose "Offside" won a Berlin award in 2006, "was an attempt to take a very strong position for freedom of speech and freedom of artists," she added. "It is important that every voice be heard, every kind of film be made."
Panahi was accused of making a film without permission and inciting opposition protests after the 2009 election that led to months of political turmoil in Iran. Five of Panahi's films, including Offside, will be screened during the event.
The 61st Berlin film festival opens with Oscars darling "True Grit," and over the following 10 days some 400 movies will vie for the attention of the world's media and industry buyers.
The Coen brothers' adaptation of the Charles Portis novel is out in North America and not eligible for prizes, but it ensures some Hollywood glamour on the red carpet at the opening gala.
The Academy Award-winning siblings said they did not have the 1969 movie version, for which John Wayne won a best actor Oscar, in mind when they made their film.
"The other film version of the book was, to tell the truth, kind of an irrelevance to us," Ethan Coen told reporters.
Jeff Bridges, in the role of the one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, was asked why True Grit had proved so popular at the box office.
"They are masters," he said of the Coens. "They're the best filmmakers we have. They make it look so easy."
REAL LIFE DRAMAS
As usual in Berlin, real world concerns are never far from the surface this year.
On Friday, "Margin Call," the debut feature of J.C. Chandor, promises to bring the drama of the 2008 financial crisis to the big screen, with Kevin Spacey and Demi Moore the big names performing in the Wall Street thriller. Also early on in the festival are two pictures focusing on the experiences of people living in dictatorships.
In competition, Paula Markovitch's directorial debut "The Prize" tells the story of seven-year-old Ceci who carries the burden of a "huge secret" in order to protect her family from repression under Argentina's military regime.
And outside the main competition lineup, "The Devil's Double" stars Dominic Cooper as the body double of Uday Hussein, the widely feared son of former Iraqi leader Saddam.
The festival aims to promote 3D, with the premieres of Wim Wender's 3D film "Pina" about choreographer Pina Bausch and Werner Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" about prehistoric paintings in France.
In competition is French director Michel Ocelot's "Tales of the Night," a 3D movie using silhouette animation introduced by Berlin director Lotte Reiniger almost a century ago.
British actor Ralph Fiennes' directorial debut "Coriolanus" is also in competition. Fiennes plays the title role in the Shakespeare adaptation.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)