Committed Cinema and a Surprising Prize List

Berlinale 2024. Report by Ecumenical Jury Member Jacques Champeaux
My Favourite Cake (Maryam Moghaddam, Behtash Sanaeeha)

Award winner of the Ecumenical Jury in the International Competition: "My Favourite Cake" by Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha. Lead actress and actor Lily Farhadpour and Esmail Mehrabi (above) accepted the prize at the award ceremony of the independent juries (© Hamid Janipour).

The Berlinale is more political than Cannes or Venice. Many of the films dealt with the war in Ukraine, the Palestinian question, oppression in Iran, young men going off to fight the jihad, and Iranian and Syrian refugees. The speeches at the opening ceremony, notably that of the Minister of Culture, were vibrant pleas for an end to the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, and for peace and freedom throughout the world. The prize list of the Ecumenical Jury reflects this trend, with the prize in the Competition going to an Iranian film, and the prize and a special mention going to two films in the Forum section that evoke, directly or indirectly, the war in Ukraine. As for the international jury's prize list, it came as a surprise to most members of our ecumenical jury, given that the films chosen, however good, did not seem to us to be the most important in the selection.

The ecumenical jury's choices

The Berlinale comprises numerous sections and welcomes hundreds of films. The six members of the ecumenical jury saw all the films in the Competition, and split into two groups of three to see ten or so films from the Panorama and Forum selections. The sheer number of films to be seen and the dispersion of cinemas throughout the city make for long, tiring days, but the counterpart of this dispersion is a festival with roots in the city. Without betraying the secrecy of the jury's deliberations, it's fair to say that discussion was easy and consensus was quickly reached, notably for the prize in the Competition selection awarded to “My Favourite Cake”, a fine Iranian film about old age and loneliness.

The story of this septuagenarian, widowed 30 years ago, who gets bored and goes in search of a man, is both funny and moving. Her evening with the cab driver she has found, divorced and alone for a very long time, is a marvel of lightness and tenderness. The theme is universal, even if the rules of Iranian society add a few constraints and increase the loneliness, since the woman's children have gone abroad. The two actors to whom we awarded the prize, in the absence of the directors who were not allowed to leave Iran, are as touching in real life as they are in the film.

For the Forum section, the two films we rewarded complemented each other, one dealing with the Stalinist past, the other with the current war in Ukraine. “Maria'Silence” is a beautiful black-and-white film with a film noir atmosphere that evokes a past - the Stalinist purges of 1937 - that is unfortunately still relevant today in Russia. “Intercepted” is a documentary about the war in Ukraine, based on a very special device: it confronts images of devastated Ukrainian homes and villages with a soundtrack consisting of recordings of conversations between Russian soldiers and their families, intercepted by the Ukrainian secret service. Through this ingenious device, the viewer receives numerous messages about Russian propaganda, the torture practiced by the Russians in the villages, but also the reactions of the Russian soldiers, which range from fear and weariness to the pleasure of torturing and killing. A powerful film based on very simple material.

Award-winning films from the Competition

For the Golden Bear, the jury repeated this year the surprise it had created last year by crowning a documentary. Mati Diop's “Dahomey” deals with the restitution by France to Benin of 26 works of art from the former kingdom of Dahomey. The film unfolds on two levels: the technical aspects of transporting and installing the works on the one hand, and the reactions of the Beninese to the operation on the other. The film also features the original idea of turning an anthropo-zoomorphic statue of King Ghezo into a character who comments on his journey in his vernacular language, adding a touch of poetry and emotion to the film.

Hong Sangsoo's “A Traveler's Needs” won the Grand Prix, despite the fact that it is not one of the director's greatest works. On receiving it, the director declared that he didn't quite understand why he'd won it! The long fixed shots and repeated scenes, familiar to Hong Sangsoo, are there, but the Frenchwoman, played by Isabelle Huppert, who tries to earn a bit of money by giving French lessons, doesn't really grab our attention. The jury also sprang a surprise by awarding the Prix du Jury to Bruno Dumont for his film “L'Empire”, a Star Wars pastiche on the grounds of P'tit Quinquin, a completely mad film in which you may (or may not) appreciate the references to Bruno Dumont's earlier films.

The Best Screenplay award went to Mathias Glasner's “Sterben” (Dying), an ambitious (the film lasts three hours) reflection on death in all its forms, from old age to suicide. The main character, an orchestra conductor in his forties, is kind but rational and insensitive, and surrounded on all sides by death: the natural death of his elderly parents, the deliberate death of his suicidal friend, and the slow death of his sister, who drowns her solitude in alcohol and sex. The director takes his time filming the exchanges between the protagonists, which may irritate the viewer but gives the film great strength. 

“A Different Man” by Aaron Schimberg, for which Sebastian Stan won the Best Actor award, is an interesting and complex film about identity and disability, mixing a bit of science fiction with a good dose of New York Jewish humor. A man has a hideously deformed head, which he makes the most of by starring in short commercials, but his life is a failure overall and he dreams of a normal face. A revolutionary treatment gives him a beautiful face, but his happiness is short-lived when he is confronted by a double of his former "self", a man with a monstrous face to whom everything succeeds! The script is subtle, and the themes of identity and happiness are treated with intelligence and humor.

The films forgotten by the Jury

There are a number of films that would have richly deserved a place on the winners list. “La Cocina” by Alonso Ruizpalacios is a flamboyant Mexican film in which the New York melting pot is observed through the kitchens of a restaurant where all countries and languages mix. The film ends in chaos, but there's a great sense of brotherhood between these men and women, who all have one thing in common: they have fled their homeland to take advantage of the American dream.

Min Bahadur Bham's “Shambhala” is set in the mountains of Tibet. In a village that practices polyandry, a young woman is married to the three brothers of a family. While her main husband is away with almost all the men of the village on a journey of several weeks to sell their produce in the city, the woman is accused of being pregnant by another man. Her husband learns of this and does not return to the village, so she sets off to meet him on a long journey on foot. This fable, marked by ancestral customs, superstitions, Buddhist rites and a close relationship with nature, is disturbing but beautiful.

In the Forum selection

In addition to the two films selected by the Ecumenical Jury, there were a number of other interesting films. “Shahid” , by Naghes Kalhor, is a wildly inventive little film about Iranian immigrants in Germany. Through the story of a young woman who wishes to abandon part of her name ("shahid") because it refers to a notion of religious martyrdom that she rejects, this multi-dimensional film speaks lightly of a serious subject. Siddartha Jatla's “In the Belly of the Tiger” is a moving, poetic film about life in India's small villages, where very poor families, often in debt, are forced to work in the local factory, in this case a brickwork, in conditions bordering on slavery. The only way to save your family from poverty is to be eaten by a tiger and collect the government's bounty.

This is a social film, but one in which the director has deliberately toned down the misery by dressing his characters, especially the children, in very colorful clothes and interweaving theatrical sequences and dreams into the narrative. There's a lot of brotherhood, tenderness and love in this film, which often brings us close to tears, but is also bathed in poetry. “Was hast du gestern geträumt, Parajanov ?” by Faraz Fesharaki is a documentary made by a young Iranian exiled in Germany, who films his relationships with his friends in Germany and his parents back in Iran. The most interesting are the video exchanges with his parents: his father is an intellectual with little support for the regime, and his mother spent two years in prison. Made with very limited means, this film is a little uneven but endearing.

Even if some films seemed a little weak for a festival like the Berlinale, the selection was rich and exciting, and the atmosphere in the cinemas particularly warm.