Right to the Heart

Why one film at this year's Berlinale was the big winner for the Ecumenical Jury. By Miriam Hollstein, President of the Jury
Tótem (Lila Avilés)

Winner of the Ecumenical Jury Prize in the International Competition: "Tótem", directed by Lila Avilés (© Limerencia)

How can you bring society's outsiders back into its midst? French director Nicolas Philibert does it in a very simple way: He has made the patients of a psychiatric day clinic in Paris, which is located on a barge on the Seine, his protagonists. In his documentary film "Sur l'Adamant" (On the Adamant), they stand in the middle of the light of the screen for 109 minutes instead of in the shadows on the sidelines. Philibert, who became internationally known with a film about a village school ("Être et avoir", 2002; To Be and To Have), has used another cinematic trick. At the beginning of the film, he leaves it open who is a patient and who is a guardian in this unique project. The elderly gentleman who can talk so profoundly about the German director Wim Wenders - a patient? The singer who sings the chanson "La bombe humaine" with skilful fervour in the opening sequence - a patient? And what about the musician who accompanies him? Only gradually does Philibert delve deeper into the life stories, letting those affected tell of what has brought them to their situation, which is no longer compatible with an achievement-oriented society and often no longer compatible with a normal everyday life. In doing so, the filmmaker always lets them remain at eye level.

This haunting work won the Golden Bear for Best Film at the end of this year's Berlinale. Philibert had already received the first award hours earlier. The Ecumenical Jury honoured him with a "Commendation" for his work, which deeply corresponds to the Christian message: I see you with all your strengths and weaknesses.

/The main prize was awarded by the six jurors from Canada, Cuba, France and Germany to the Mexican family drama "Tótem" by Lila Avilés. From the perspective of a 7-year-old girl, the director describes how the family prepares for the birthday of the girl's terminally ill father. The special format of the film (4:3) draws the audience directly into the chaotic preparations, in which feelings such as pain, sadness, joy and irony alternate, sometimes every minute. Carried by a great ensemble, the film shows the Mexican culture of dealing with farewells and pain in a much more relaxed way than in the West. At the same time, it celebrates life. For this, the Ecumenical Jury unanimously chose it as the winner.

The discussions within the jury were often controversial. Coming from different cultural contexts and life situations, the jury members' view of the films was always very different. Was the German competition entry "Irgendwann werden wir alles erzählen" (Someday we'll tell each other everything) about a great love or a toxic relationship of dependence? Does the film "Disco Boy", also shown in the competition, reproduce colonialist clichés or does it rather skilfully stage African spirituality?

But in contrast to many public discourses, the differences of opinion were settled in an atmosphere of respect and rapprochement. The motto was always not only to endure the gaze of the other or others, but to understand it and thus give oneself the chance to learn. It shows what potential there is in these juries, both in terms of human as well as cultural and religious interaction. And what kind of charisma could the format develop if a member of a Jewish or Islamic community would always be present? 

One of the most frequently asked questions to the Ecumenical Jury was: What criteria do you use to choose your prizes? The jury member Kerstin Heinemann made it clear in an interview with "Deutschlandfunk" that they were not looking for the "better Jesus film". In fact, there is a list of points to consider. Special artistic quality is just as much a part of it as respect for human dignity, Christian responsibility and universal impact. What sounds formalistic and complicated on paper usually comes naturally in practice.  It quickly becomes clear which film succeeds in touching across cultural and religious boundaries. Because that is what the audience of a festival longs for: images that shake you up, that stay with you long after you have left the cinema.

At the Berlinale, the Ecumenical Prize winner undoubtedly succeeded in doing just that. The director's reaction at the award ceremony showed how important the awards from the "smaller" juries are at such festivals: She spontaneously performed a dance of joy on stage. A German distributor has also already been found. In March or April, German cinema audiences will have the opportunity to see for themselves why this film in particular won the hearts of the Ecumenical Jury.