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French Documentary ‘On the Adamant’ Wins Golden Bear at Berlin

Nonfiction cinema and transgender narratives are the big winners on a night where Kristen Stewart's jury defied expectations.

On the Adamant
Courtesy of TS Productions/Longride

Veteran French docmaker Nicolas Philibert was the surprise winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, taking the prize for his film “On the Adamant,” a poignant observational study of a Paris mental health care facility.

He received the award from jury president Kristen Stewart, after the star offered an extended and plainly heartfelt ode to the film’s humanity and simplicity: “People have gone in circles for thousands of years trying to pin down what can be deemed art, who’s allowed to do it and what determines its value,” she said, citing the boundary-pushing nature of the festival, and namechecking such opposing philosophers on the matter as Aristotle, Barthes, Sontag and Beavis & Butthead, before concluding, “For all of us, you just know it when you see it.”

It was an apt way to introduce a film that stood out in this year’s Competition lineup for its emotional directness and lack of formal fuss. Candidly and sometimes humorously surveying the daily routines of The Adamant, a waterborne day-care facility for people with a variety of mental disorders, it speaks not just to cinephiles but to anyone: Like Philibert’s 2002 arthouse hit “Être et Avoir,” a similarly touching, unadorned study of a rural school, it centers on universal values of care and empathy. Describing it as “a warm reminder of Philbert’s perceptive gifts,” Variety‘s critic noted that the film’s “human subjects are both expressive and highly vulnerable, open to the low-key, non-invasive presence of the camera.”

Visibly stunned, the 72-year-old Frenchman was slightly less lyrical than Stewart when accepting his award: “Are you crazy or what?” he addressed the jury, which also included filmmakers Radu Jude, Carla Simón, Johnnie To and Valeska Grisebach, actor Golshifteh Farahani and casting director Francine Maisler. Gathering himself, Philibert professed himself “humbled, proud and deeply moved,” describing his film as an effort to reverse public preconceptions of the mentally ill, and reminding us that “the craziest people are not those we think they are.”

Philibert’s film was the only documentary in Competition; its win marks the second consecutive triumph for a nonfiction film at one of the three major European festivals, after Laura Poitras’ Oscar-nominated “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” took the Golden Lion at Venice in September.

Perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, established male filmmakers dominated the Competition awards, with venerated German writer-director Christian Petzold taking the Grand Jury Prize for his elegant tragicomedy of manners “Afire” — praised by Variety as “subtly thrilling and moving” — while veteran French New Wave auteur Philippe Garrel landed Best Director for his family-centered chamber piece “The Plough.” (Variety‘s Jessica Kiang was less convinced than the jury, dismissing it as “a low-stakes trifle.”) Both filmmakers used their acceptance speeches to pay tribute to recently passed directors meaningful to them, with Petzold honoring Spain’s Carlos Saura, and Garrel shouting out the “great master” Jean-Luc Godard.

Portugal’s João Canijo won the Jury Prize for his hotel-based story of warring mothers and daughters, “Bad Living,” which premiered in Competition as one half of a diptych. (Its counterpart, “Living Bad,” unspooled in the secondary Encounters competition and received no prizes.) Rigorous German formalist Angela Schanelec was the only female director awarded by the jury, receiving the screenplay prize for “Music,” her experimental, playfully cryptic riff on “Oedipus Rex” — lauded by presenting juror Jude as “a great film that goes against the bookkeepers.”

If women filmmakers fell surprisingly short — with critical favorites like Mexican director Lila Avilés’ kaleidoscopic family portrait “Totem” and Celine Song’s aching Sundance smash “Past Lives” receiving no awards — female performers ruled the festival’s gender-neutral acting awards for the third consecutive year, with both the leading and supporting awards going to deeply felt portrayals of transgender characters.

Nine-year-old Spanish newcomer Sofia Otero, described by Variety as “utterly winning” as a young girl asserting her gender identity over the course of a summer vacation in the gentle drama “20,000 Species of Bees,” took the leading award to whoops of approval at the ceremony — while Stewart praised the young actor for defying “a [filmmaking] system designed to diminish the intelligence of the performer, especially when the performer is a child.” (Having acted since she was eight, Stewart knows whereof she speaks.) A tearful Otero had the audience eating out of her hand as she soaked up her moment in an endearingly lengthy acceptance speech that thanked every member of her extended family.

German transgender performer Thea Ehre, whose tender-tough performance as a trans ex-con roped into an undercover drugs bust is a standout virtue of the softly reviewed thriller “Till the End of the Night,” received the supporting award — a classification that those who have seen the film might dispute. Thanking her director Christoph Hochhäusler for casting her as “a very powerful woman,” she proceeded to more intimately thank her parents for “always giving me the space to be who I wanted to be.” Ehre’s win marks a representational milestone in the festival awards world; it felt tonight that a barrier had been broken.

Rounding out the Competition awards, the artistic contribution prize went to prolific French cinematographer Hélène Louvart, a stalwart of the Euro-arthouse and U.S. indie scene alike, for her iridescent lensing of Italian director Giacomo Abbruzzese’s debut feature “Disco Boy.” Uncomfortable with receiving the prize on her own, she invited Abbruzzese to co-accept; he proceeded to wax lyrical about “the most artistically fulfilling collaboration of my life.”

Outside the Competition, Belgian director Bas Devos topped the Encounters competition for “Here,” his quiet, stirring paean to human kinship and the silent natural world; he thanked the separate Encounters jury — including Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili, Greek actor Angeliki Papoulia and Italian programmer Paolo Moretti — for “seeing the film we were quietly hoping they’d see.”

Further proving the strength of both nonfiction cinema and transgender talent at this year’s awards, trans filmmaker Paul B. Preciado earned a special jury prize for his radical, self-searching, literary riff “Orlando, My Personal Biography,” initially not realizing he was supposed to come onstage to accept the award. “This is not the place I’m used to being normally — I’m just a trans and nonbinary writer,” he said, before earning one of the evening’s biggest laughs by thanking Virginia Woolf “for having written my biography in 1928.”

Mexican docmaker Tatiana Huezo, who recently had major success with her first fiction feature “Prayers for the Stolen,” received a pair of gongs — Best Director in Encounters, and the top prize from the separate documentary jury — for her acclaimed nonfiction return “The Echo,” an immersive portrait of a rural community described by Variety as “an exquisitely textured film [about] how children’s lives echo those of their parents.” Thanking “all who believed in me and accompanied me all these years,” Huezo concluded by describing documentary filmmaking as “a path of resistance, an act of love and faith.” Tonight’s awards made it clear that path is getting a little less rocky.

Full list of winners:

COMPETITION

Golden Bear for Best Film: “On the Adamant,” Nicolas Philibert

Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize: “Afire,” Christian Petzold

Silver Bear Jury Prize: “Bad Living,” João Canijo

Silver Bear for Best Director: “The Plough,” Philippe Garrel

Silver Bear for Best Leading Performance: “20,000 Species of Bees,” Sofia Otero

Silver Bear for Best Supporting Performance: “Till the End of the Night,” Thea Ehre

Silver Bear for Best Screenplay: “Music,” Angela Schanelec

Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution: “Disco Boy,” Hélène Louvart, cinematography

ENCOUNTERS

Best Film: “Here,” Bas Devos

Best Director: “The Echo,” Tatiana Huezo

Special Jury Award: (ex aequo) “Orlando, My Political Biography,” Paul B. Preciado; “Samsara,” Lois Patino

BERLINALE DOCUMENTARY AWARD

Best Documentary: “The Echo,” Tatiana Huezo

Special Mention: “Orlando, My Political Biography,” Paul B. Preciado

GWFF BEST FIRST FEATURE

Best First Feature: “The Klezmer Project,” Leandro Koch, Paloma Schahmann

Special Mention: “The Bride,” Myriam U. Birara

BERLINALE SHORTS

Golden Bear: “Les Chenilles,” Michelle Keserwany, Noel Keserwany

Silver Bear: “Dipped in Black,” Matthew Thorne, Derik Lynch

Special Mention: “It’s a Date,” Nadia Parfan

Previously announced:

AUDIENCE AWARDS

Panorama Audience Award: “Sira,” Apolline Traoré
Second Prize: “The Burdened,” Amr Gamal
Third Prize: “Midwives,” Léa Fehner

Panorama Documentary Audience Award: “Kokomo City,” D. Smith
Second Prize: “The Eternal Memory,” Maite Alberdi
Third Prize: “The Cemetery of Cinema,” Thierno Souleymane Diallo

INDEPENDENT JURY PRIZES

Ecumenical Jury Prizes
Competition: “Totem,” Lila Avilés
Panorama: “Midwives,” Léa Fehner
Forum: “Where God is Not,” Mehran Tamadon
Special Mention: “On the Adamant,” Nicolas Philibert

FIPRESCI Jury Prizes
Competition: “The Survival of Kindness,” Rolf de Heer
Encounters: “Here,” Bas Devos
Panorama: “The Quiet Migration,” Malene Choi
Forum: “Between Revolution,” Vlad Petri

Teddy Awards
Best Feature Film: “All the Colors of the World Are Between Black and White,” Babatunde Apalowo
Best Documentary/Essay Film: “Orlando, My Political Biography,” Paul B. Preciado
Best Short Film: “Dipped in Black,” Matthew Thorne and Derik Lynch
Jury Award: Vicky Knight, performance, “Silver Haze”
Special Teddy Award: Sunny Bunny, the Queer Film Award of the Molodist Film Festival in Kyiv

CICAE Art Cinema Award
Panorama: “The Teacher’s Lounge,” İlker Çatak
Forum: “The Face of Jellyfish,” Melisa Liebenthal

Guild Film Prize: “20,000 Species of Bees,” Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren

Label Europa Cinemas: “The Teacher’s Lounge,” İlker Çatak

Caligari Film Prize: “De Facto,” Selma Doborac

Peace Film Prize: “Seven Winters in Tehran,” Steffi Niederzoll

Amnesty International Film Award: “The Burdened,” Amr Gamal

Heiner Carow Prize: Fabian Stumm, screenwriter, “Bones and Names”

Compass-Perspective Award: “Seven Winters in Tehran,” Steffi Niederzoll
Special Mention: “The Kidnapping of the Bride,” Sophia Mocorrea

AG-Kino Gilde Cinema Vision 14Plus: “And the King Said, What a Fantastic Machine,” Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck

OTHER PRIZES

Berliner Morgenpost Readers’ Jury Award: “20,000 Species of Bees,” Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren

Tagesspiegel Readers’ Jury Award: “Orlando, My Political Biography,” Paul B. Preciado

DEVELOPMENT AWARDS

Kompagnon Fellowship: “Paraphrase on the Finding of a Glove,” Mareike Wegener; “My Beloved Man’s Female Body,” Anna Melikova

Artekino International Award: “Peeled Skin,” Leonie Krippendorff

Eurimages Co-Production Development Award: “Iván & Hadoum,” Ian de la Rosa

Eurimages Special Co-Production Development Award: “The Blindsight,” Ruslan Batytskyi

VFF Talent Highlight Award: “God and the Devil’s Cumbia,” Carlos Lenin

Talents Footprints (Masterd Enablement Program): “TransStories,” Carlos Ormeño Palma; “WE FILM MX,” Miguel Ángel Sánche; “Majoaneng,” Philip Leteka