the documentary “Dahomey”, by Mati Diop, wins the Golden Bear for best film

“Cease the Fire” : “Cease fire” in Gaza, but also in Ukraine, such was the slogan of the closing evening of the 74e edition of the Berlinale, which took place on Saturday February 24, a date which marks the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The slogan was worn on the lapel of the jacket, or on the back, and it was used throughout the speeches which marked the awards ceremony.

One of the cult films of the event was No Other Land (Panorama section), by a collective of Palestinian and Israeli directors – Basel Adra, Hamdan Ballal, Yuval Abraham, Rachel Szor –, on the violence of the Jewish state police in the occupied territories. It won the Audience Award for best documentary.

The jury, chaired by Mexican-Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, awarded the Golden Bear for best film to Dahomeydocumentary by Franco-Senegalese Mati Diop, a great achievement for the director born in 1982, who won the Grand Prix at Cannes with Atlantic (2019). The film follows, in November 2021, the restitution of twenty-six works of art to the Republic of Benin. They had been pillaged in 1892 by French colonial troops – Benin was then called the Kingdom of Dahomey.

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One of them is an anthropo-zoomorphic statue representing King Ghezo (who reigned from 1818 to 1858) and bearing the number 26. The beauty of the device lies in the choice to give this work the status of a character: here it is who “speaks” in the first person, via a voice-over, to tell us about his return to the country. We feel her moved, worried, when she is about to board. And the viewer is still with her, so to speak, in the dark, when, at the end of the journey, the technicians prepare to take her out and make the sound of the electric screwdriver heard. Here we are in Benin.

Singular works were rewarded

It is then that this dense film (1h07) experiences its second twist, the most politically fruitful, during a debate of rare intensity, in the presence of Beninese students. Some are outraged that the French State is only returning twenty-six works out of a total of several thousand, others are perplexed to see these gems behind glass, such scenography in their eyes being part of Western culture. Dahomey will be the opening film, out of competition, at the Cinéma du Réel, in Paris, from March 22 to 31.

“As a Franco-Senegalese, Afro-descendant filmmaker, I have chosen to be one of those who refuse to forget, who refuse amnesia as a method”, underlined Mati Diop when receiving his prize, while affirming “its solidarity with Palestine”. Let us point out that it is also a documentary which won the Golden Bear in 2023, On the Adamantby Nicolas Philibert, first part of a trilogy on psychiatry.

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