Award Ceremony and Summary of the Festival

Berlinale 2024 (4)
Golden Bear Berlinale 2024

Mati Diop, director of "Dahomey", with jury president Lupita Nyong'o (© Ali Ghandtschi / Berlinale 2024)

For years, the Berlinale has been known, one could even say notorious, for honouring the strangest possible films with the Golden Bear. The last winner to make it to the cinema was "Body and Soul" by Ildikó Enyedi in 2017. Since then, one gets the impression that it was mainly ideological criteria that were used to award the prizes at the Berlinale.

Now it's "Dahomey", generally referred to in press reports as a "looted art documentary". Senegalese-French director Mati Diop, whose feature film debut "Atlantique" was awarded the Grand Jury Prize in Cannes five years ago, documents the repatriation of looted wooden statues from the former Kingdom of Dahomey, which were brought to France by the French colonial power at the end of the 19th century. In 2021, 26 objects from the Musée du quai Branly in Paris were returned to Benin in West Africa. We see President Patrice Talon receiving the artworks in a pompous ceremony. Mati Diop is not interested in the fact that Talon is one of the richest men in sub-Saharan Africa thanks to corruption and has sent the opposition to prison.

A length of 30 minutes would have been easily enough for her documentary, but Diop manages to extend the film to 67 minutes and heighten it surreally. As soon as the statues are stowed away in wooden crates, No. 26 begins a monologue in a distorted monster voice about the time in the Paris museum and the return to Africa. The Haitian writer Makenzy Orcel is the author and narrator of the sometimes unintentionally funny-sounding ghost texts.

"Dahomey" met with a divided response in Berlin. While some emphasised its poetic quality and relevance in the current debate about looted art, others found the film overlong and not very original. With a plea for the restitution of looted art, you can be sure of general applause today. But does it have to win a Golden Bear? The suspicion remains that, as with Nicolas Philibert's documentary "Sur l'Adamant" last year, it was less the cinematic quality and rather the relevance of the subject matter that was honoured.

The acting award for Sebastian Stan in "A Different Man" suggests similar motives. His transformation from a physically disfigured man suffering from neurofibromatosis to an attractive heartthrob did not require a great acting performance. Or should the subject of 'disability in film' be honoured here? Cillian Murphy would have been a more suitable candidate for his role in "Small Things Like These". The fact that Emily Watson received the award for best supporting actress in the same film for her 5-minute performance as the relentless Mother Superior fits in with the absurd logic of this awards ceremony. The same applies to "Pepe", the talking hippopotamus whose journey from South West Africa to South America we are allowed to follow for over two hours. It remains a mystery why Nelson Carlos De Los Santos Arias' film, which looks like a collage of images, was awarded the director's prize of all things.

It is also perplexing that a great film like Andreas Dresen's resistance drama "In Liebe, Eure Hilde" (From Hilde, With Love) was left empty-handed at the awards ceremony. At least an acting prize for Liv Lisa Fries (not possible, as the Berlinale's rules only allow for a unisex prize for actors) or an award for best screenplay for Laila Stieler would have been appropriate. The fact that Matthias Glasner was awarded the screenplay prize for his merciless family drama "Sterben" (Dying) is understandable, even though the film with a duration of three hours is a challenge for the audience's patience.

Two awards went to the Iranian entry "Keyke mahboobe man" (My Favourite Cake) by Maryam Moghaddam & Behtash Sanaeeha. The tragicomic story of a widow who goes in search of a man in Tehran and experiences a brief moment of romance was the critics' favourite and was awarded prizes by both the Ecumenical Jury and the international film critics (FIPRESCI).

There was a controversy at the awards ceremony when American director Ben Russell, who was honoured for his documentary "Direct Action", came on stage with a keffiyeh (Palestinian scarf), spoke of "genocide" in Gaza and called for solidarity with the Palestinians. In addition to the audience award in the Panorama section, the Palestinian film "No Other Land" also won the main prize for best documentary film. In his acceptance speech, filmmaker Basel Adra spoke about his ambivalent feelings: "It's hard for me to celebrate while tens of thousands of my people are being killed in Gaza." His Israeli co-director Yuval Abraham had this to say: "Basel and I are the same age. I am Israeli, Basel is Palestinian...I live under civilian justice, Basel under military law. We live 30 minutes away from each other, I can vote, Basel cannot. I can move freely in my country. Like millions of Palestinians, Basel is imprisoned under the occupation in the West Bank. This situation of apartheid between us, this inequality, must come to an end." The audience responded with loud applause.

One day later, a wave of indignation broke out in the media, triggered by a report from the Israeli broadcaster Kan, which spoke of an "anti-Semitic speech" by Abraham. The renowned Israeli daily Ha'aretz writes: "This framing by Kan corresponds to the atmosphere of muzzling, self-censorship and persecution of anyone who dares to criticise the Israeli regime. More specifically, those Israelis who oppose the occupation... What's so scary about Abraham's words? In less than a minute, he has described a situation that most Israelis deny, or worse, are completely unaware of."

As if on cue, the award ceremony and the entire Berlinale were suddenly vilified as anti-Semitic. The Israeli ambassador Ron Prosor spoke of "anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli statements", the Central Council of Jews demanded consequences for cultural funding. The Minister of State for Culture, Claudia Roth, spoke of "hatred of Israel" and announced an investigation, while the festival management distanced itself from the award winners' statements in an official statement.

Faced with the media outrage, the question of the artistic balance of this Berlinale faded completely into the background. At least the artistic director Carlo Chatrian managed to lure Martin Scorsese to Berlin, where he was presented with a Golden Bear of Honour. Apart from that, a weak competition, even weaker than in previous years, helpless award decisions and blurred boundaries between the individual sections of the festival. Next year, there is no longer going to be a management duo and the American Tricia Tuttle will be the sole director of the Berlinale. It remains to be seen.