Members of the international jury for the upcoming 69th Berlin International Film Festival Berlinale: producer, director and actress Trudie Styler, curator Rajendra Roy, actor Sandra Hueller, jury president actor Juliette Binoche, film critic and aut
Members of the international jury for the upcoming 69th Berlin International Film Festival Berlinale: producer, director and actress Trudie Styler, curator Rajendra Roy, actor Sandra Hueller, jury president actor Juliette Binoche, film critic and aut

BERLIN - Europe's first major film festival of the year, the Berlinale, kicked off Thursday making a statement against entertainment industry sexism by welcoming an unprecedented line-up of female directors.

The 11-day event prides itself on being the most politically engaged of the A-list cinema showcases, presenting 400 movies from around the world, most on hard-hitting topical themes including rising extremism and economic exploitation.

But its red carpet promises a steady stream of glamour too with Christian Bale, Diane Kruger, Tilda Swinton, Catherine Deneuve, Jonah Hill, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Casey Affleck all awaited in the frosty German capital.

French Oscar winner Juliette Binoche, 54, is leading a six-member panel choosing the winner of the prestigious Golden and Silver Bear prizes, to be awarded at a gala ceremony on February 16.

Last year, with the #MeToo movement against abuses of power roiling the industry, the innovative docudrama "Touch Me Not" about sexual intimacy by Romania's Adina Pintilie clinched the top honours.

For the first time this year, seven out of the 17 contenders are women — a more than 40-percent share that eclipses rivals such as Cannes and Venice, which have come under fire as chummy men's clubs.

The top festivals have long faced pressure to boost their female representation as they serve as gatekeepers to international distribution, awards and box office cash.

'Big step forward'

Binoche welcomed the more diverse selection, saying it was long overdue and sent a message beyond the world of cinema.

"I think that's a good step forward, 10 years ago was not like that," she told reporters. "Open minds — it's a good sign."

British producer, director and actress Trudie Styler, 65, who is also on the jury, said the Berlinale had long championed films by underrepresented groups but that this year's selection was "not only courageous but a big step forward."

Denmark's Lone Scherfig, who made the Oscar-nominated coming-of-age tale "An Education" in 2009, will start the festival with the premiere of her film "The Kindness of Strangers" on Thursday evening.

The bittersweet drama stars Zoe Kazan ("The Big Sick") as a mother of two who has to rely on her fellow New Yorkers for help, in a cast including Andrea Riseborough ("The Death Of Stalin") and Bill Nighy ("Love Actually").

Scherfig, 59, said she was proud her film would be opening the last Berlinale under Kosslick, who is passing on the baton after 18 years.

"It's a milestone edition so I'm really looking forward to presenting the film there," Scherfig told film industry bible Variety.

Polish veteran Agnieszka Holland will unveil the Stalin-era thriller "Mr Jones" starring James Norton ("Happy Valley") while France's Agnes Varda will premiere a new autobiographical documentary out of competition.

Acclaimed French director Francois Ozon will present his controversial new drama "By the Grace of God" based on real-life cases of sex abuse allegedly committed by a French priest.

A cardinal, Philippe Barbarin, is currently on trial in Lyon on charges he covered up the assaults, allegations he denies.

'World's biggest festival'

Kosslick, 70, is credited with expanding the Berlinale and boosting its international profile with high-wattage guests ranging from the Rolling Stones to festival regulars Swinton and George Clooney.

"Our fans have stayed true to us and grown so much that we can say we're the world's biggest film festival in terms of audience," Kosslick told AFP, with around a half-million tickets sold each year.

Kosslick will be handing over the reins at a time of growing competition from streaming services but said he saw scope for cinemas to "co-exist" and thrive.

After winning the Golden Lion top prize at the Venice film festival in September with "Roma", Netflix will enter the Berlin race for the first time with gay marriage drama "Elisa and Marcela" by Spain's Isabel Coixet, based on a true story.

In June, Kosslick will be succeeded by Carlo Chatrian, the current head of the Locarno film festival, and Mariette Rissenbeek, the Dutch director of German Film, which promotes homegrown movies abroad.

For his last edition, Kosslick has opted to make a parting political statement, offering to buy tickets for leaders of the far-right Alternative for Germany party to a screening of "Who Will Write Our History?", a documentary about the Warsaw Ghetto.