BERLIN (AFP) - Italian director Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire At Sea, a harrowing documentary about Europe’s refugee crisis, clinched the Berlin film festival’s Golden Bear top prize on Saturday from a jury led by Meryl Streep.
As Europe grapples with its biggest migrant influx since World War II, the picture offers an unflinching look at life on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, where thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East have arrived trying to reach the European Union over the last two decades.
Thousands more have perished on the dangerous journey in rickety, overcrowded boats.
The Eritrean-born Rosi, who spent several months on Italy’s Lampedusa making the film, dedicated the prize to its residents “who open their hearts to other peoples”.
“I hope to bring awareness,” he said as he accepted the golden trophy from Streep.
“It is not acceptable that people die crossing the sea trying to escape from tragedies.”
The picture is told through the eyes of a 12-year-old local boy, Samuele Pucillo, and a doctor, Pietro Bartolo, who has been tending to the dehydrated, malnourished and traumatised new arrivals for a quarter-century.
Streep said “the jury was swept away” by Fire At Sea, which she called “urgent, imaginative and necessary filmmaking”.
“This film goes to the heart of what the Berlinale is all about right now in 2016,” she said.
“It’s a daring hybrid of captured footage and deliberate storytelling that allows us to consider what documentary can do. It demands its place in front of our eyes and compels our engagement and action.”
The Golden Bear for Fire At Sea comes after the Cannes film festival last May awarded its coveted Palme d’Or to Dheepan, a brutal drama about Sri Lankan refugees living in France.
Rosi told reporters when his film premiered that Europe’s refugee crisis marked one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes since the Holocaust.
In chilling footage, Rosi accompanied coastguard rescue missions answering the terrified SOS calls of people on boats, most of them arriving from Libya. Many of the vessels are packed with corpses of people who suffocated from diesel fumes.
The festival, now in its 66th year, had placed a special spotlight on the refugee issue, after Germany let in more than 1.1 million asylum seekers last year, with nearly 80,000 arriving in Berlin.
Donations boxes to support charities helping torture survivors were placed at cinema venues, and festival internships were reserved for migrants.
George Clooney, whose Hail, Caesar! opened the event, even met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel with his wife Amal “to talk about how best we can help”.
In other prizes, France’s Mia Hansen-Love won the Silver Bear for best director for her drama Things To Come starring Isabelle Huppert.
Huppert wowed audiences with her dignified, soulful turn in Things To Come as a philosophy teacher whose marriage falls apart just as her elderly mother dies.
Tunisia’s Majd Mastoura won the Silver Bear for best actor for his role in Hedi, a love story set in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, which also won best debut feature.
“I give this gift to the Tunisian people, all the martyrs of the revolution, all of those who contributed to the revolution,” he said.
“I hope we will continue on being free, being happy, producing good art.”
The Silver Bear for best actress went to Denmark’s Trine Dyrholm for her role as a wronged wife in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune, a semi-autobiographical take on his 1970s childhood.
Oscar-winning Bosnian director Danis Tanovic accepted the runner-up Grand Jury Prize for Death In Sarajevo about the corrosive legacy of the Balkans wars.
A more than eight-hour-long historical epic by Filipino director Lav Diaz, A Lullaby To The Sorrowful Mystery, claimed the Alfred Bauer Prize for a feature film that opens new perspectives in cinema.
Best screenplay went to Polish filmmaker Tomasz Wasilewski, his portrait of the pivotal 1989-90 period in his country as told through four women, played by some of Poland’s best-known theatre actresses, at crossroads in their lives.
And cameraman Mark Lee Ping-Bing won the Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution for the poetic Chinese drama Crosscurrent, about the passage of time in a society in upheaval as symbolised by the flow of the Yangtze River.
Last year’s Golden Bear went to Iranian dissident director Jafar Panahi’s innovative Taxi, which he was forced to make in secret behind the wheel of a cab.