Just In!! ‘Dahomey,’ Documentary About Looted Artwork, Wins Top Prize at Berlin Film Festival

The top prize at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival was given to “Dahomey,” a documentary by the French filmmaker Mati Diop about 26 looted artworks that were returned to Benin from France in 2021.

The unconventional feature, narrated in part by the gravelly, imagined voice of one of the artworks, is a playful exploration of the legacy of colonialism and the interplay between history and identity in present-day Benin. It is Diop’s first feature since “Atlantics,” a drama about Senegalese migrants that won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019.

In Diop’s acceptance speech for the prize, known as the Golden Bear, she said that “Dahomey” was part of the “collapsing wall of silence” around the need to return artworks looted by colonial powers to their original owners. “We can either get rid of the past as an imprisoning burden,” she said, “or we can take responsibility for it.”

This year’s jury was led by the Kenyan Mexican actress Lupita Nyong’o and included the German director Christian Petzold, whose film “Afire” won the runner-up prize at last year’s festival in Berlin, and the Spanish director Albert Serra.

This year’s runner-up prize was presented to “A Traveler’s Needs,” by the prolific Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo, who also won awards at three of the last five editions of the event. His typically understated film stars Isabelle Huppert as an eccentric Frenchwoman who has a series of encounters in Seoul.

The Special Jury Prize was given to “The Empire,” a critically divisive, visually lavish satire of “Star Wars” by the director Bruno Dumont set in a French coastal town.

The best director award went to Nelson Carlos De Los Santos Arias for “Pepe,” one of the festival’s strangest entries, about a hippopotamus once owned by the drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. The gender-neutral best performance award went to the actor Sebastian Stan for his work in “A Different Man,” in which he plays a man who undergoes a procedure for his facial disfigurement.

The Silver Bear for best screenplay went to Matthias Glasner, the German writer-director of “Dying,” a drama about a family grappling with parental mortality. The best supporting performance award went to Emily Watson for her role as a sinister Irish nun in “Small Things Like These.”

This year’s festival, known as the Berlinale in Germany, is the last to be headed by Mariëtte Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian, who took over dual leadership of the festival in 2019 with the goal of raising its profile. Much of the discussion around the current event has centered on whether they have delivered on their mandate.

The competition lineup featured a blend of Berlinale mainstays, including Sang-soo and the German director Andreas Dresen, along with more esoteric and explicitly political films from countries such as Iran. But many critics complained that the lineup was more uneven and less bold than the ones in previous years. At the midpoint of the festival, Susan Vahabzadeh of the Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote in German that the “density of truly successful films had not been high.”

Others complained that despite appearances by Adam Sandler and Kristen Stewart, the current event lacked star power. In The New York Times, the critic Jessica Kiang wrote that the festival had “rarely felt this embattled and unstable, or unsure of itself.”

It sets the stakes for Tricia Tuttle, an American who previously led the London Film Festival and who in April will take the helm of the Berlinale, the largest film festival in the world by audience number. In addition to attracting top-level talent, she will have to steer the festival through a perilous financial and political climate.

At a news conference announcing her appointment in December, Tuttle said that her goal was to balance “established filmmakers” with “underrepresented voices,” but noted that the difficulties facing the Berlinale were not unique. “The last few years have been challenging for every festival,” she said.

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