This article appeared in the February 23, 2024 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here. Stay up to date on all of our coverage of the Berlin International Film Festival here.

Two Refusals (Would We Recognize Ourselves Unbroken?) (dir. Suneil Sanzgiri, 2024)

A thin strip of black wall separates the two channels that make up Suneil Sanzgiri’s Two Refusals (Would We Recognize Ourselves Unbroken?). Ocean waves crash into the edge of one frame and ripple out into the other, pooling together a pair of histories of rebellion in India and in Angola, both former sites of Portuguese colonialism. Across a little over half an hour, the film relates the tales of an activist who fought the imperialists in Goa, an Indian province that was a Portuguese colony until 1961, and Sita Valles, an Angolan revolutionary of Indian origin, who fought with the Communist Party against the corruption of the newly independent Angolan state, and was executed by Agostinho Neto in 1977. Two refusals—one of colonialism, and another of all that is elided by the prefix “post-”—are framed by a poet who wonders what could have been had the ship ferrying Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer who “discovered” India in 1498, been thwarted by a storm.

To ask what could have been is to settle for nothing less than utopia—to resist restlessly, refusing crumbs in the name of victory. On January 19 of this year, Sanzgiri announced that he was withdrawing Two Refusals from the Forum Expanded section of the 2024 Berlinale, turning down his first-ever invitation to the festival in solidarity with Strike Germany, a campaign that calls upon international cultural workers to withhold their labor from German institutions in protest of the repression of pro-Palestinian speech in the country. Sanzgiri was preceded by Toronto-based Ghanaian-Mosotho filmmaker Ayo Tsalithaba, who pulled his short, Atmospheric Arrivals—a stirring collage of images and text meditating on diasporic belonging—from the same section. Canadian filmmaker John Greyson also withdrew his short Death Mask, a playful, lo-fi opera crafted from texts about the relationship between pioneering German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and his Chinese protégé and partner Li Shiu Tong.

Other filmmakers participated in the strike in the following days: Maryam Tafakory pulled her project, Sukhte-del, from one of the festival’s labs, despite—she told me via DM—direly needing funding to complete her follow-up to 2023’s acclaimed Mast-del. Artists Lawrence Lek, Monica Sorelle, and Advik Beni declined their invitations to the selective Berlinale Talents program. But no artists other than Tsalithaba, Sanzgiri, and Greyson withdrew from the festival’s official lineup of nearly 200 films. Sanzgiri told me that he had made the programmers of Forum Expanded—an independent sidebar of the Berlinale, organized by the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art—a proposition before pulling his selection: if they called publicly for a cease-fire, he would let the film screen. They did, but only on the second day of the festival. By then, the withdrawn films had been relegated to nothing more than a mention on the Arsenal website. “What could have been,” I imagine the strikers wondered.


At a press conference at the start of the festival, jury member Christian Petzold commented on the stir of conversation around the Berlinale’s stance (or lack thereof) on the genocide in Palestine and the invitation—then disinvitation—of members of the right-wing AfD party to its opening ceremony: “When artists talk about Gaza at a press conference, then about Ukraine, then about five AfD fellas, then at some point I think to myself, we’re here to watch films.” That was a refrain I heard from many participants at the festival, particularly given the uproar last year among the film community when leadership changes proposed by the German Ministry of Culture—the Berlinale’s primary funder—led to Artistic Director Carlo Chatrian announcing that the 2024 edition would be his final one. One attendee argued to me that at a festival such as this, “true believers of cinema” must be defended—or else the state wins.

These assertions are driven by a belief in art and its spaces as something sacred, worth protecting in and of itself, rather than instrumentalizing for political goals. But even a brief consideration of the history of international film festivals shows this putative tradition of apoliticism to be a fantasy. Where the Venice Film Festival emerged as Benito Mussolini’s brainchild, and Cannes as its progressive counter, the Berlinale was founded in 1951 on the initiative of Oscar Martay, an American military officer stationed in Berlin, as a “showcase of the free world”—or, as one writer describes it, a “Marshall plan of glamour.” It was both an attempt by Allied forces to revive postwar Berlin’s cultural scene and a means for creating a presence, and a market, for Hollywood in Germany. The opening selection of the first edition, held in June 1951, was Rebecca (1940), in honor of Alfred Hitchcock’s close collaboration with the Allies in World War II. Joan Fontaine was the guest of honor.

The very founding of the Berlinale was, in other words, a geopolitical maneuver—and geopolitics continued to shape the festival throughout its history. The first director of the festival was film historian Alfred Bauer, who held that position until 1976; in 2020, his Nazi past came to light, prompting academic studies and statements from the Berlinale. At the second edition, Orson Welles’s Othello was banned from the festival due to the director’s “anti-German remarks,” and in 1970, the jury led by George Stevens resigned over disagreements about the “anti-Americanness” of Michael Verhoeven’s film o.k.—which graphically depicts U.S. atrocities during the Vietnam War—with no prizes awarded. In 1979, several socialist countries withdrew their films to protest the inclusion of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, taking issue with its inaccurate and offensive portrayal of the Vietnamese. World events have influenced the festival far beyond its film selection, too: last year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke at the Berlinale’s opening ceremony, after a firm statement by the leadership about the festival’s solidarity with Ukraine.


What this history emphasizes isn’t that “all art is political,” as the truism goes, but that making, funding, and showing art is always, inextricably, an engagement with the politics of our world. This is the perspective that drives Strike Germany, which shifts responsibility from the art to the artist, as a worker and political actor, whose agency rests in their labor. Launched in January, the campaign underlines the entrenched role of public funding in the German art scene and the resultant censorship of pro-Palestinian voices in the cultural sphere, particularly with regard to an official statement from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) that has been cited for conflating critiques of Israel with anti-Semitism. (The Berlin Senate announced a clause last December that would have required all recipients of city funding to commit to the IHRA definition, but dropped it the following month due to “legal concerns.”) The Strike Germany campaign features nearly 2,000 signatures at press time.

One of the organizers of the strike (who asked to remain anonymous) told me that it was conceived as a “new model” at a moment when all other forms of struggle seemed to pale in the face of genocide and repression. It is an explicit call for international artists, whose livelihood does not depend on German public funding, to show their allyship. Strike Germany disavows “strikebreaker stigma” or the picket-line model; the campaign is meant to be one among a multiplicity of tactics of resistance, and a moral high bar of sorts. “I think it became clear early on with the Berlinale that the people who would withdraw would be the ones on the margins of the festival—for example, those in the Forum Expanded segment, which tends to be more politically explicit in content, but also in terms of the means of production,” the organizer told me. “It is a crystallization of the general dynamics of striking. There is this way of thinking of a strike: if you can afford it, you should strike. But ultimately it’s the people who can’t really afford it who strike—people who are already excluded from bigger budgets and bigger economies because of the content of their work.”

Even though the strike had a smaller presence at the festival, it exposed a crisis of agency for filmworkers and artworkers. If we are beholden to institutions for our survival—be it the state or corporations—what do we own of our work? It is a crisis that has deepened in the last two decades due to, per critic Negar Azimi, the “ascendance of a new brand of art work that is vaguely, but triumphantly, referred to as ‘political art.’” The notion that ideological battles can be fought successfully in the realm of aesthetics allows artists and institutions to have their cake and eat it, too: to express allegiance to causes without taking material actions to further them. A detail about the 1968 edition of the Berlinale, reported by, is revelatory: concerned about the curtailing of the Cannes Film Festival that year due to protests, organizers apparently hastily incorporated “podium discussions” about the student movement into the program.


This is the modus operandi of the modern festival—to invest all political responsibility in the fiction of “open dialogue,” and eschew action in the name of “democracy.” At the Berlinale, this was made literal by the “Tiny House,” a sequestered wooden structure that was parked on the fringes of Potsdamer Platz, next to a Five Guys. From February 17 to 19, it was open for four hours a day, and attendees could walk in and participate in discussions led by Shai Hoffmann—a German-Jewish artist of Israeli origin, who founded the Tiny House project—and Palestinian educator Ahmad Dakhnous. When I visited Tiny House, about 10 people were squeezed into the room, and the conversation was about the necessity—and reprieve—of intimate spaces of dialogue at a time when the public sphere is deeply divided. It was no doubt a cathartic experience for some to ask questions and express opinions in a seemingly non-hostile environment, but I couldn’t help wondering: to what end, precisely? Private dialogue can be nourishing and even educational, but real change—especially when the stakes are life and death—can only be brought about by appeals to power. Engaging in debate without addressing sites of power, be it the law, or capital, or public discourse, serves merely to soothe one’s own conscience.

In contrast, the premiere of No Other Land, a selection of the independently curated Panorama section, offered a more energizing example of what dialogue and collaboration can look like. Co-directed by a collective of Palestinian and Israeli artists, including the journalists Basel Adra and Yuval Abraham, the film is composed of footage shot between 2019 and 2023, showing the violent expulsion of the people of Masafer Yatta in the West Bank by the Israeli Defense Forces. The images are direct, brutal, and incontrovertible; it was gutting to watch bulldozers and armed Israeli soldiers uproot the paltry homes and lives of Palestinians and to recognize the similarity of these scenes with those flooding social media in the present. Yet if the last months have shown us anything, it’s that images of violence in themselves effect much less in terms of change than we might hope. As far back as 1980, John Berger argued that pictures of war crimes in Vietnam shocked the viewer not just with their content but also by exposing “his own personal moral inadequacy,” for which the penance is likewise individual and moral: at best, a humanitarian contribution.

But No Other Land seeks to induce neither pity nor shock. It is, as Adra says in voiceover toward the end of the film, “a story about power.” It is a portrait of war as a structure, not an event—a beautiful, often poetic portrait of the friendship between two young men of the same age who live 30 minutes from each other, but are entirely different political subjects in what they repeatedly describe as an apartheid state. And faced with the barrels of Israeli rifles, as they throw their bodies in front of tanks, they’re both powerless. The effect of the film is not to make us feel inadequate in the face of incommensurable horror, but to remind us that violence is the taking of power—and justice can only come from its reclamation. At their premiere screening, which was met with a standing ovation, Adra and Abraham took to the stage to reiterate these truths: Adra criticized the Berlinale for not calling for a cease-fire and the German state for continuing to arm Israel in Gaza; and Abraham emphasized that the two of them sharing the stage as co-directors did not mean they were equal in the eyes of the world. It was a speech they would echo at the awards ceremony on February 24, where they won the Best Documentary Film Prize—a speech whose message was tragicomically reinforced when Claudia Roth, the German minister of state for culture, issued a statement clarifying that her applause was directed only at Abraham.

“The dichotomy between the choice of prize and the official rhetoric of the administrative side of the system was interesting to witness,” said the Strike Germany organizer I interviewed. “The double efforts from the inside and the outside drive up the contradictions in a way that is productive.” Indeed, by the end of this year’s festival, the cracks had begun to show: what began with the strike led to a chain reaction of protests, attempts at wresting agency back from the institution. A coalition of the festival’s workers published a letter demanding that the leadership call for a cease-fire in Gaza and the release of all hostages. Longtime collaborators like SAVVY Contemporary, a space that in the past has hosted Forum Expanded programming, and the Palestine Film Institute, which usually has a presence at the European Film Market (EFM), did not participate in the festival and instead hosted independent programs—including a screening of Aida Returns, a film by Palestinian director Carol Mansour, that was rejected from the Berlinale, per the introduction. At one point, film workers and activists disrupted the EFM with a surprise banner drop, unfurling a black cloth reading “Lights, Camera, Genocide” among the flags of various countries. Directors awarded for their starkly political and anti-colonial films—including Abraham and Adra, Mati Diop (Dahomey), and Ben Russell and Guillaume Cailleou (Direct Action)—made statements in solidarity with Palestine, which prompted an extraordinary response from Berlinale Executive Director Mariëtte Rissenbeek, claiming that it would have been more “appropriate” for the winners to make “more differentiated statements.”

If nothing else, it’s a sign that the pacts between the artist and the institution have begun to fray. The possibility of refusal has reared its head.

Devika Girish is the Editor of Film Comment and a Talks programmer for the New York Film Festival.