As the 61st Berlin Film Festival debuted Thursday, Iranian director Jafar Panahi's empty chair at the jury press conference was in the spotlight.

Panahi was invited to sit on the seven-member jury which decides the prize winners when the cinema showcase ends on Feb. 19, Reuters reports.

In Decmeber, the director 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 actress and jury president Isabella Rossellini. We haven't given up. He is a very big presence even if he is not here.

Panahi was accused of creating a film without the proper permissions and provoking opposition protests after the 2009 Iranian election that led to many months of political turmoil.

Panahi won a Berlin award in 2006 for his film Offside. A total of five of his films, including Offside, will be shown during the event.

[Offside] was an attempt to take a very strong position for freedom of speech and freedom of artists. It is important that every voice be heard, ever kind of film be made, Rossellini said.

The festival kicked off with a screening of the Oscar-nominated film True Grit, which is the Coen brothers' adaptation of the Charles Portis novel.

They are masters, said Jeff Bridges, star of True Grit, about the Coen brothers. They're the best filmmakers we have. They make it look easy.

The film Margin Call, which will be screened Friday is also highly anticipated. Starring Kevin Spacey and Demi Moore the film brings the drama of the 2008 financial crisis to the big screen.

Throughout the next 10 days, approximately 400 films will be screened in hopes of gaining media attention and prospective buyers.