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Mati Diop Wins the Golden Bear

Mati Diop’s Dahomey (2024)

“Being in the quivering presence of so many properly angry young filmmakers is just amazing,” commented Emily Watson from the stage of the Berlinale Palast on Saturday evening. Watson was accepting the Silver Bear for Best Supporting Performance for her brief but unforgettable turn as a Mother Superior the film that opened this year’s Berlinale, Tim Mielants’s Small Things Like These.

During an awards ceremony that Guy Lodge describes in Variety as “marked by impassioned statements against war and social discrimination,” a few winners had already called for a ceasefire in Gaza by the time Watson was summoned to the spotlight. Mati Diop joined them when the night was capped with the presentation of the Golden Bear, the festival’s top prize, to Dahomey, her short but magnificently dense feature chronicling the return of artworks stolen by French troops in the nineteenth century from the African kingdom of Dahomey to present-day Benin. Diop punctuated an exquisitely worded speech on restitution and justice with a raised fist.

On Sunday morning, commentary in the German papers ran the gamut, but in the afternoon, Berlin mayor Kai Wegner took to social media to turn up the heat. “There is no place in Berlin for antisemitism,” he tweeted, “and that goes for the art scene as well.” To the tune of nearly three million euros, the city has helped the festival fill a gap in its budget, and that lends considerable weight to the demand Wegner issued to incoming festival director Tricia Tuttle: “I expect the new leadership of the Berlinale to ensure that such incidents do not happen again.” Wegner did not specify just how the individual voices of hundreds of participating filmmakers might be stifled next February.

The Berlinale has long prided itself on being the most political of the world’s major film festivals, but there was a palpable sense throughout the seventy-fourth edition that organizers were straining to dial it back a bit. Even before the event was underway, industry trades and the local press were breathlessly covering the controversy sparked by the invitation of members of the Alternative für Deutschland, Germany’s far-right political party, to the opening ceremony, and once those invitations were rescinded, attention turned to complaints from festival workers that the Berlinale was pussyfooting around the violence in Gaza.

As Guy Lodge points out, Diop is the first Black filmmaker to win the Golden Bear, and it was handed to her by Lupita Nyong’o, the first Black president of the Berlinale’s International Jury. For the most part, though, recognition of these milestones has been lost in the noise.

MUBI, in the meantime, has picked up Dahomey for North and Latin America, the UK and Ireland, and several European countries. Writing for Sight and Sound, Rachel Pronger calls the film “a beguiling meditation on identity, ancestry, and the weight of history,” and in a dispatch to Film Comment, Jonathan Romney notes that the music “by French keyboard veteran Wally Badarou and UK cult artist Dean Blunt creates a similar sense of eerie urgency to that of Atlantics [2019], in which Diop memorably merged Afrofuturism, the supernatural, and electro-global consciousness.”

Silver Bears

Presenting the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay to writer-director Matthias Glasner for Dying, jury member Oksana Zabuzhko, whom the festival calls “perhaps the most important living writer in Ukraine,” reminded the audience that Saturday marked the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of her country. And so it went throughout the evening. Few hot buttons were left unpressed, but at the same time, nearly every winner went out of his or her way to sincerely thank outgoing Berlinale artistic director Carlo Chatrian not only for the personal invitation to the 2024 edition but also, by extension, for the work he and his programming team put into reshaping the festival’s profile over the past five years.

At Film Verdict, Stephen Dalton calls Glasner’s Dying, starring Lars Eidinger, Corinna Harfouch, Lilith Stangenberg, and Ronald Zehrfeld, a “sprawling three-hour symphony of tragicomic angst, depressive divas, and dysfunctional family dynamics.” In the Hollywood Reporter, Leslie Felperin finds that Dying “manages to be exceedingly funny, often in some of its darkest moments, as well as expectedly sad.”

Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht won the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution for his work on The Devil’s Bath, the story of a woman who decides to commit a horrific act of violence in order to escape her oppressive existence in rural eighteenth-century Austria. In the New York Times, Jessica Kiang writes that “however despairing all the piety and murder, prayer and madness might be, the exquisite filmmaking, from the Goodnight Mommy codirectors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, casts an unshakably hypnotic spell. Much of that power derives from Martin Gschlacht’s beautiful, earthy photography. Shots of mud oozing with blood and swollen fish dying slowly in tubs of filmy lake water evoke fundamental questions about our interactions with the natural world.”

Sebastian Stan won the award for Best Leading Performance for playing “a man who gets radical plastic surgery only to find out he still has to live with himself,” as Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov succinctly puts it in his review of Aaron Schimberg’s A Different Man. The problem for Stan’s Edward “both was his appearance, which objectively changed how people responded to him,” writes Rizov, “and wasn’t that at all—it’s now all the skittishness and self-pity from the resulting and now firmly internalized trauma that he can’t slough off.”

Outskirts has posted a dialogue between Julia Scrive-Loyer and Diego Cepeda on Pepe, the fourth feature from Nelson Carlos De Los Santos Arias, who won the award for Best Director. Pepe is a hippopotamus brought to Colombia by drug lord Pablo Escobar and then killed after he’s escaped the estate. Defying death, the multilingual hippo narrates his own story. “Pepe stands halfway between two ‘opposing’ fronts in the history of experimental cinema,” proposes Cepeda. “David Gatten summed them up as follows: Stan Brakhage thinks that naming things prevents seeing; Hollis Frampton thinks that naming things is what makes it possible to see. The freedom in Pepe—both of the character and of the film—is to escape language, to get away from the roads we have already travelled as hunters, with our guns and our cameras, with our interpretations and metaphors.”

The two remaining Silver Bears are the Grand Jury Prize and the Jury Prize, essentially second and third place, awarded, respectively, to Hong Sangsoo’s A Traveler’s Needs, starring Isabelle Huppert as a French teacher in Korea—we took a first look last week—and Bruno Dumont’s The Empire. Hong delivered Saturday’s funniest acceptance speech, hands down. “I don’t know what you saw in the film,” he told the jury. “I’m curious. It’s too much. I really thank you.”

Talking to Dumont for Film Comment, Beatrice Loayza notes that all of his films “have seemed to come from a planet far, far away. From the stark savagery of his earlier, more naturalistic work—La vie de Jésus (1997), L’humanité (1999)—to the baroque farces that have occupied him over the past decade, beginning with the slapstick murder mystery Li’l Quinquin (2014), the now sixty-five-year-old director has made a career of leaning into cinematic artifice to draw out strange and sacred elements within French history and contemporary life.” Some will find what Dumont has to say about The Empire more engaging than the film, a space-opera spoof in which the forces of good and evil battle it out in the skies over a northern French coastal town.

Encounters

The award for Best Film in the Encounters competition, which Chatrian introduced in his first year in Berlin, went to Guillaume Cailleau and Ben Russell’s Direct Action, “that rare documentary that seems to exist in symbiosis with the people and place it captures,” as Leonardo Goi describes it at the Film Stage. For decades, the ZAD de Notre-Dame-des-Landes, a decentralized occupation movement and the best-known “Zone to Defend” in France, has warded off construction of an airport in the rural commune. “Where so many other attempts to shed light on this 4,000-acre community have embraced a top-down approach, focusing almost exclusively on its fraught relationship with the authorities,” writes Goi, Direct Action “works the opposite way—shooting with as opposed to at, forsaking facile sensationalizing for a far richer, eye-opening study.”

Juliana Rojas won the award for Best Director for her third feature. In Cidade; Campo, Joana leaves her flooded hometown in the Brazilian countryside for São Paulo, while Flavia and her wife leave the city to take over her recently deceased father’s farm. “Unfolding like a dialogue between its diptychal parts,” writes Olivia Popp at Cineuropa, “the film’s slowness is its strength, with a meditative but never dragging pace easing the viewer into contemplation between the stories that, by themselves, would feel unfinished.”

The Encounters Jury—Lisandro Alonso, Denis Côté, and Tizza Covi—decided to give the Special Jury Award to two debut features, Aliyar Rasti’s The Great Yawn of History and Qiu Yang’s Some Rain Must Fall. In the former, a religious man hires an agnostic to accompany him on a search for the gold coins he sees in his dreams, and in Variety, Siddhant Adlakha finds the journey “as mysterious and melancholy as it is wryly funny.” At Ioncinema, Nicholas Bell writes that Some Rain Must Fall, in which the past and present collide over the course of a few days in the life of a middle-aged housewife, is “a condensed laundry list of intergenerational domestic strife, but led quite exceptionally by Yu Aier, whose troubled countenance gives way to cathartic fury and eventual reclamation of her dogged durability.”

Panorama

The winners of both the Best First Feature Award and the Berlinale Documentary Award premiered in the noncompetitive section, Panorama, whose program was particularly strong this year. In Pham Ngoc Lan’s Cu Li Never Cries, a woman returns to her home in Hanoi, where her niece is frantically making plans for her wedding. “With its swerving tracking shots through empty downtown alleyways and nocturnal forests, spying on the presence of a small loris as a pet or a glitterball used as home décor, Lan’s feature teases lyrical beauty from its seemingly quotidian storyline,” writes Clarence Tsui at Film Verdict.

Two Israeli journalists and two Palestinian activists have shaped footage shot between the summer of 2019 and the winter of 2023 in Masafer Yatta, a community of small Palestinian villages in the West Bank, into No Other Land, and at IndieWire, David Ehrlich emphasizes the urgency of this “raw and enraging documentary.” For Jay Weissberg at Film Verdict, the significance of the film lies “in its documentation of the Zionist plan to eliminate the Palestinian presence long before October 7. This comes as no surprise of course, but for Basel Adra, Rachel Szor, Hamdan Ballal, and Yuval Abraham, the only way to combat their sense of total helplessness is by recording the ongoing appropriation of land and brutal treatment of its inhabitants.” According to Abraham, ever since Israeli television aired a thirty-second clip from his acceptance speech in Berlin, “I’ve been receiving death threats.”

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