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Prison-Set Documentary ‘Fonja’ Wins Main Award at Ji.hlava Film Festival

Stories of transcendence in the face of adversity dominated the Ji.hlava docu fest in the Czech Republic Monday, with a precedent-setting award for best film shared among 10 imprisoned juveniles in Madagascar.

The Opus Bonum main competition award, granted by a sole juror, Romanian director Cristi Puiu, went to “Fonja” by German filmmaker Lina Zacher, the story of 10 juvenile delinquents in the largest detention facility on the island nation. The boys joined a four-month workshop to be trained in filming, editing, creating simple cinematic tricks and telling their own stories.

Puiu, who said the film “kept me awake” and gave him “a dumb smile of genuine satisfaction,” praised Zacher for “the warmth, the intuition, the trust, the courage and generosity that are holding together a film.”

The winners, Ravo Henintsoa Andrianatoandro, Lovatiana Desire Santatra, Sitraka Hermann Ramanamokatra, Jean Chrisostome Rakotondrabe, Erick Edwin Andrianamelona, Elani Eric Rakotondrasoa, Todisoa Niaina Sylvano Randrialalaina, Sitrakaniaina Raharisoa, Adriano Raharison Nantenaina and Alpha Adrimamy Fenotoky, shared the honor with Zacher, who also won a special mention for her work on “Fonja.”

A theme of dark foreboding ran through the fest closing ceremony, held at the communist-era House of Culture, with presenter Tereza Nvotova inviting leaders of NGOs to offer insights into how to stave off global climate disasters as plastic waste piled high around her.

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The event was capped by a tableau staged by the protest group Extinction Rebellion, with apocalyptic figures enacting the shutdown of free speech in a future world that’s become largely uninhabitable.

The best Czech docu award, along with 10,000 euros ($11,078), went to “Solo” by French director Artemio Benki, about Martin Perano, a young Argentine piano virtuoso and composer who struggles with mental illness.

In the Between the Seas section, covering docus from Central and Eastern Europe, the winner of the prize and 10,000 euros ($11,078) was Romania’s “Teach” by Alex Brendea, the story of a rebellious math mentor who travels through Transylvania firing up students.

The section’s jury, which included American film theorist Timothy Corrigan, described the film as a “celebration of the unconventional.”

Belgium’s “Aphasia” by Jelena Juresa, a visually rich essay focused on silence surrounding the crimes of Belgian colonialism, won best docu debut along with won the Student Jury award.

A fest headliner guest, Kazakh director Sergey Dvortsevoy, the author of this year’s festival spot, won the prize for contribution to world cinema. Dvortsevoy, the director of 2008’s “Tulpan” and 2018’s “Ayka,” led master classes at the fest offering insights into his expressive work on marginalized people.

Although he has announced he is retired from filming, the director said, “Now I’m thinking I have to make a new film somehow.”

“Life Could Be So Beautiful,” co-directed by Angelika Herta and Filip Jacobson, who cycled through France along the path of wartime Polish writer Andrzej Bobkowski, won the student competition of Between the Seas, standing out among seven entries for “its free-flowing, unpredictable style, which subverts the conventional narrative of a masculine adventure, and for its wry, open-ended enquiry into the nature of historical trauma and memory.” A $2,000 prize via Current Time TV goes to the directors.

The jury also awarded a special mention to the Czech film “Daily Manure” by Nikola Krutilova, for its “intense and poignant sequences” documenting the global environmental crisis of food overproduction.

“Lost Coast” by Jiri Zykmund took a special mention for its consideration of the notion of home in a changing landscape, as did “Apparatgeist” by Marie-Magdalena Kochova, a look at how technology transforms social interactions.

Irish documentarian Kris Kelly, meanwhile, won the student jury award for “Kings of Sumava,” a look at the life of a communist-era smuggler.

The top experimental docu prize went to “Action, Almost Unable to Think” by Chinese director Haonan Mao for transforming “a real life story into an apocalyptic cinematic journey.” A special mention went to “Abiding” by Ugo Petronin, a short that celebrates the magic and the power of cinema.”

Fest director Marek Hovorka said of the 277 films screened this year, including 91 world premieres, curated from 37,000 submissions, shared one quality: Documentarians “trying to show the world the way they would like to see it.”

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