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Berlinale Film Festival 2021 To Go Gender Neutral, Will Do Away With Separate Male-Female Acting Awards

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I cannot recall when exactly this happened, but I remember being corrected once by a mentor for using the word ‘actress’ in my writing. It’s not needed anymore, she said. We now had to use the word ‘actor’ for both male and female performers. Just as we use the same one for lawyers or doctors, you know? I thought it was great; could cause a bit of confusion if the actors’ names were also gender neutral, but then, who cares, right? Their talent should speak for them, not their gender. And looks like the folks over at Berlin International Film Festival also agree. For come next year, Berlinale 2021 is going gender neutral with its acting awards. This means, there will not be separate male and female categories for their lead and supporting actor awards.

The festival directors Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian, in an official statement announced that instead of the awards for the Best Actor and the Best Actress, there will now be singular ‘Silver Bear for Best Leading Performance’ and  ‘Silver Bear for Best Supporting Performance’ awards.

“We believe that not separating the awards in the acting field according to gender comprises a signal for a more gender-sensitive awareness in the film industry,” Rissenbeek and Chatrian said in their statement. Berlinale will then be the first international film festival to have gender neutral acting categories.

The international event, which is one of the first film festivals to kickstart the year, will take place from February 11-21, 2021. And because of it being that far off, the festival organisers are confident enough to announce that Berlinale will be a physical event and not a virtual one, like several that were held online this year due to the coronavirus lockdown. They believe that there is a certain relationship that is built between the audience and the films showcased when they are experienced physically. And that’s something they do not want to compromise on, especially now that theatres and cinema halls across the world are starting to open, and smaller events and film festivals are taking place, with all the necessary precautions, of course.

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With this gender neutral change in the categories, the 71st Berlin International Film Festival, or Berlinale 2021 will see the international jury will present eight awards: Golden Bear for Best Film, Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize, Silver Bear for Best Director, Silver Bear Jury Prize, Silver Bear for Best Leading Performance, Silver Bear for Best Supporting Performance, Silver Bear for Best Screenplay, and the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution.

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Now, on a basic level, this decision to have gender neutral categories makes absolute sense. An actor is an actor, irrespective of their gender. Although the gender wage gap continues to exist, there is a noticeable change in the kind of roles that women get to play on the screen, which aren’t too fixated on being played by a specific gender. Unlike Indian cinema, of course, where the audience’s receptiveness to gender neutrality is not at all promising, thus forcing female actors into stereotypical roles. I could go as far as saying that it is perhaps award shows that have forced us to look at male and female performers separately instead of as one standard category of performances.

However, I have some healthy skepticism about the effectiveness of this gender neutral categorisation. And that question is, how do we effectively eliminate bias from our minds? Because that is a hard one, and it has an uncanny knack of slipping into our decisions. I mean, you ask me to pick between a host of male stars and Meryl Streep, and I’d probably pick her. But in this case, am I being actively biased to the male actors by picking a female actor, especially one who we reflexively uphold as great because she blows our mind every single time? Same question applies when you pit an Amitabh Bachchan against some of our most talented female performers like Neena Gupta, Vidya Balan or an Alia Bhatt? Will his seniority and his gender be a barrier in the jury’s head when objectively comparing his performances with the female actors?

I’ll give an award to anyone who can help resolve this dilemma. One good thing though, is that at least internationally, the actors are usually never bigger than the film. And that makes me a tad hopeful that Berlinale introducing gender neutral categories will bring about the change that it is hoping to! As for Indian award shows, it’s going to be several takes.

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