Berlinale 2023 Awards

Kori Ceballos in Paul B. Preciado’s Orlando, My Political Biography (2023)

Nonfiction made an admirably strong showing on Saturday night when the juries at this year’s Berlinale announced their awards. Of the nineteen films selected for the main competition, Nicolas Philibert’s On the Adamant was the only documentary—and it won the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear.

The Adamant is a floating mental health care facility, a specially designed barge anchored in the Seine in the center of Paris. Philibert, still best known for To Be and to Have (2002), spent several months with the patients who voluntarily come on board each day to meet, make music, draw, paint, cook, or watch and discuss movies at the ciné-club.

On the Adamant is “not only a depiction of psychiatric treatment administered with plenty of warmth and enthusiasm,” writes Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter, but also “a portrait of several individuals who, despite their noticeable disabilities, are capable of producing original and moving works of art.” Jonathan Romney, writing for Screen, points out that Philibert is clearly “waving a flag for the positive possibilities of an empathetic, culture-centered approach to mental care.”

Encounters, Documentary, First Feature

Five of the sixteen films in the Encounters program were works of nonfiction, and two of them impressed not only the jury for the relatively new competition (Dea Kulumbegashvili, Paolo Moretti, and Angeliki Papoulia) but also the jury presenting the Berlinale Documentary Award (Emilie Bujès, Diana Bustamante, and Mark Cousins). That award went to The Echo, and Tatiana Huezo, who broke through internationally in 2021 with her first fictional feature, Prayers for the Stolen, also won the Encounters Award for Best Director.

The Echo, shot over a period of a year and a half in the Mexican village of El Eco, is an “intimately observed exploration of tough and tender realities,” writes Sheri Linden in the Hollywood Reporter. “Examining the unique ties that bind farming families, where everyone’s welfare hangs on the same unkind elements,” writes Guy Lodge in Variety, “this exquisitely textured film observes how children’s lives echo those of their parents, repeating for generations on the same constantly inconstant land, until somebody breaks the pattern.”

The Berlinale Documentary Award jury gave a Special Mention to Paul B. Preciado’s Orlando, My Political Biography, which also shared the Encounters Special Jury Award with Lois Patiño’s Samsara. Preciado, the author of Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, has made what Film Quarterly editor B. Ruby Rich declares on the Film Comment Podcast to be “the first real trans masterpiece.”

Taking inspiration from Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, Preciado presents what Giovanni Marchini Camia, writing for Filmmaker, calls a “succession of stylized vignettes, filmed for the most part on deliberately artificial sets,” where “trans people of all ages dressed in comically makeshift period costumes introduce themselves as the character of Orlando and take turns retelling the original story.” As Erika Balsom puts it for Film Comment: “Sally Potter’s version this isn’t. Its tone varies wildly, as do its formal strategies . . . This expansive film unfolds the complexity and diversity of trans experiences without ever universalizing—and while having fun.”

Introducing his interview with Lois Patiño for In Review Online, Ryan Akler-Bishop refers to Samsara as “a Buddhist triptych. It opens in Laos, where a boy regularly reads the Tibetan Book of the Dead to a dying old woman; after death, the woman’s soul moves through the afterlife.” Between these two sections, Patiño has his viewers close their eyes as flashes of white and colored patterns beam through our eyelids to conjure the woman’s passage through the bardo. For Leonardo Goi at the Film Stage, Samsara is “the rare film that invites your whole body into its universe—one whose haptic, aural, olfactive pleasures are just as vivid as its visual riches. It’s a tale that unspools as a Heraclitean river: you cannot step into it twice, for it is not the same film, and you are no longer the same person.”

Here, exquisitely shot by Grimm Vandekerckhove and hinging to a considerable degree on the finely tuned sound design by Boris Debackere, is Belgian director Bas Devos’s follow-up to Ghost Tropic (2019) and the winner of the Encounters Award for Best Film. “Despite a somewhat precious logline—insomniac Romanian construction worker (Stefan Gota) meet-cutes with Belgian-Chinese bryologist (Liyo Gong)—the film distinguishes itself by how assuredly it subordinates potential dramatic links to textural play, with most every scene built around a perceptual event,” writes Lawrence Garcia.

The GWFF Best First Feature Award Jury—Judith Revault d’Allonnes, Ayten Amin, and Cyril Schäublin—went with yet another Encounters selection, Leandro Koch and Paloma Schachmann’s The Klezmer Project. Playing a version of himself, Koch is a wedding photographer who distances himself from his Jewish background—until he meets Paloma, a clarinetist with a keen interest in klezmer music. To catch and keep her eye, he tells her he’s making a documentary on the musical tradition. A Special Mention went to Rwandan filmmaker Myriam U. Birara’s The Bride, the story of a surprising friendship that develops after a forced marriage.

Silver Bears

Wrapping up this year’s Berlinale for the New York Times, Jessica Kiang inserted a brief but perfect aside, noting that Kristen Stewart’s “effortless, dressed-down cool and sulky, up-all-night charisma make her very much the Berlin of American movie stars.” Presiding over the International Jury, Stewart was joined by Golshifteh Farahani, Valeska Grisebach, Radu Jude, Francine Maisler, Carla Simón, and Johnnie To.

The Grand Jury Prize went to Christian Petzold’s Afire,which Jay Weissberg, writing for the Film Verdict, calls “a supremely generous film that accords even its main character, a sullen young writer stymied by his constitutional inability to see rather than merely observe, a perhaps undeserved measure of grace. The director’s latest marks a welcome return to a more contained, intimate story in which the world’s catastrophes, here represented by devastating forest fires, lick around the edges, creating an atmosphere of approaching danger threatening to interrupt four young people in a summer home by the sea.”

João Canijo arrived in Berlin with two films, Bad Living, which won the Jury Prize, and Living Bad, which screened in Encounters. Both films are collections of short stories with characters from each of them crossing paths with those in other stories at a Portuguese hotel. “I wanted to talk about anxiety and how mothers transmit their anxieties to their daughters,” Canijo tells Cineuropa’s Teresa Vena. He was inspired by a photograph by Gregory Crewdson that “shows a woman on a bed, next to her a baby, and the woman looks in sorrow towards it. It's this gloomy situation that I wanted to capture.” He did, many times over. Canijo’s often inventive compositions keep the eye busy enough, but the tone, chapter after chapter, becomes improbably monotonous.

With The Plough, the story of a brother and two sisters who struggle to keep their family’s traveling puppet show on the road after their father passes away, Philippe Garrel won the Silver Bear for Best Director. Accepting his award, Garrel thanked his three children—Louis, Esther, and Lena—for taking on the roles, and he thanked the late Jean-Luc Godard as well, reminding us that Alphaville won the Golden Bear in 1965. The Plough threads “the blurred lines between fact and fiction to weave a nuanced exploration of the dichotomy between legacy and vocation,” writes Rafaela Sales Ross at Little White Lies.

With “tenacity and skill,” observes Caitlin Quinlan at Little White Lies, eight-year-old Sofía Otero, winner of the Silver Bear for Best Leading Performance, plays Aitor, and later, Lucía, in Basque filmmaker Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren’s debut feature, 20,000 Species of Bees. The child “doesn’t quite have the language for what she feels yet,” though “she knows that she isn’t the boy her family believes her to be,” writes Quinlan. Thea Ehre won the award for Best Supporting Performance for her portrayal of a trans woman freshly sprung from prison in Christoph Hochhäusler’s Till the End of the Night, a neonoir that has had several critics referencing Rainer Werner Fassbinder. “A steely but sensitive screen presence,” writes Guy Lodge in Variety, Ehre “deserves a more intricately dimensional character than the rather erratic one screenwriter Florian Plumeyer has devised for her.”

Angela Schanelec won the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay for Music, which turns the myth of Oedipus into what Jessica Kiang, writing for Variety, calls “a postmodern expression of a premodern text.” The jury gave a well-deserved Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to cinematographer Hélène Louvart for her work on Giacomo Abbruzzese’s debut feature, Disco Boy, a deeply problematic homage to Claire Denis’s Beau travail (1999) with occasional nods to the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul as well. Franz Ragowski plays a Belarusian who slips into France to join the Foreign Legion and eventually establish what appears to be a supernatural connection with a Nigerian rebel (Morr Ndiaye).

The general consensus that gradually snowballed over the course of eleven days in the varied venues across the city was that this year’s Berlinale turned out to be much stronger than that lineup first looked on paper. In particular, the Encounters program, launched in 2020 by artistic director Carlo Chatrian and his programming team, has rapidly become one of the most dynamic showcases of surprising and promising talent on the global stage.

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