By Michael Roddy
BERLIN (Reuters) - George Clooney will be in town on Thursday when "Hail, Caesar!" opens the annual Berlin Film Festival, and Meryl Streep is the competition jury president, but the politically attuned showcase hopes to attract refugees as well as film fans this year.
The festival that began in 1951 when Germany -- and Europe -- was recovering from a war that had uprooted millions of people is making an extra effort to welcome the latest wave of refugees who have fled war in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
Refugees will be taken behind the scenes of the festival, some accompanied by NGO workers who are helping them to adjust to life in Germany, and there will be a refugee-staffed food truck serving up Mediterranean fare with the aid of a celebrity chef, the festival said in a statement.
Dieter Kosslick, the festival's director, told Reuters in an interview that without losing sight of its primary goal of presenting the best of world cinema, this year's Berlinale is programmed in part to show why people become refugees.
"If you lose your homeland you don't lose it because you want to leave your house, you want to leave your garden, your flowers, your family," Kosslick said. "You want to be happy, and you are leaving because you are not happy and this is the way you can see the whole Berlinale."
Germany has taken in more than a million refugees over the past year, the largest number of any European country.
One of the competition films, "Fuocoamare" (Fire at Sea) by director Gianfranco Rosi, whose "Sacro GRA" won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2013, is a documentary about refugees piling up on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa.
"La Route d'Istanbul" (Road to Istanbul), in the festival's Panorama program, is a drama about a mother trying to rescue her daughter from Islamic State militants in Syria.
Jay Weissberg, a Europe-based critic for trade publication Variety, said it was no surprise that the Berlin festival would make refugees a theme at a time when Europe is wrestling with how to deal with the millions fleeing to its shores.
"My problem with it basically ... is it just smacks a little bit too much of the Berlinale showing off its political correctness," Weissberg said in an interview.
"At the same time I want to say, 'Why not?' Aren't we acknowledging Syrians in Syria went to film festivals and now that they're in Germany why aren't we also trying to normalize their lives -- and perhaps this is a way to do it."
Weissberg was more enthusiastic about the breakthrough this year for Arabic language films.
Competition film "Inhebbek Hedi" (Hedi) is about a young Tunisian man about to be married who falls in love with a tourist guide. "Barakah yoqabil Barakah" (Barakah Meets Barakah), in the Forum strand, is described as a Saudi romantic comedy.
Weissberg said the Jordanian film "Theeb", about a Bedouin boy on a perilous desert mission, had been nominated for best foreign-language film at the Academy Awards.
"Finally festival programmers are looking at Arab territories and realizing that there is a tremendous number of interesting voices coming out of the region that had been under-represented before," Weissberg said.
"It's wonderful that the Academy is also finally recognizing there are powerful stories being told in a way that appeals as much to international audiences as to local ones."
(Reporting by Michael Roddy and Swantje Stein; Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Gareth Jones)