As one of the biggest film festivals in the world drew to a close on Saturday night in Berlin, the prizes were awarded. The penultimate prize, the so-called Golden Bear (the bear being the symbol of Berlin) for the best film of the 16 in the festival competition was given to Nader And Simin, A Separation, an Iranian feature by director Asghar Farhadi. It is the first time an Iranian film has won the top award in Berlin.
The movie is a mostly domestic tale of personal relationships, outlining the tensions between a middle class Iranian couple, who are trying to leave the country, and their less educated, poorer counterparts. According to critics, it also provides a thought provoking insight into the way Iranians live today and how the various classes in that country think so very differently about politics, religion and lifestyle.
The other critically acclaimed favourite - a two-and-a-half hour black and white epic, The Turin Horse by seminal art house Hungarian director Bela Tarr - received a Silver Bear.
The prizes sit well with the major political undertone at the Berlinale this week. Influential Iranian director Jafar Panahi had been invited to sit on the jury which was judging the competition films but because the film maker had just been jailed for six years in Iran, as well as banned from working professionally for 20, he was not able to be in Berlin. His crime: "Assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country's national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic."
Since his first arrest, influential members of the film industry like Martin Scorsese and Sean Penn have called for his release - as have various European government ministers. In 2010 he was invited to be a member of the jury at Cannes but was unable to attend. His chair was left symbolically empty at all meetings of the Cannes jury. The same thing has happened at the Berlinale this year. According to the festival, the Tehran regime offered to send another Iranian but the festival's head Dieter Kosslick replied that, "We don't want somebody from the substitutes' bench."
Before and during the ten-day event, the festival organisers have put out press releases expressing their solidarity with Panahi. In fact things became so heated this week, that the Iranian delegation apparently left the German capital early. And during his acceptance speech in Berlin on Saturday evening, Farhadi spoke to the glitzy audience of his friend and colleague Panahi. "I want to remind you of Jafar Panahi," he said. "I really think his problem will be solved, and I hope he will be the one standing here next year."
The film festival has had its share of criticism, with industry experts saying that the event isn't important enough in movie land to compete with Cannes and Venice, the other two most important European film festivals. Pundits acknowledge that the real wheeling and dealing is done in Cannes and opinions seemed divided as to whether Venice outranks Berlin these days or not. But one thing is certain: with over 300,000 visitors to the festival, the Berlinale is definitely the largest publicly attended film festival on the planet.
And the Ugly
If you were going to have a good whine at the end of the Berlinale, here is what you might put on your list of moans: scheduling conflicts that meant you couldn't watch two films and interview one director at the same time, having to stuff bread into your mouth while running down the street to catch the next film and a slowly growing hatred of all movies because you watched seven in two days and your eyes hurt. In fact, an average of three films a day was quite enough - apparently film festival veterans stick to one or two a day.
With almost 400 films playing at the festival over the space of nine days, it would have been nigh on impossible to see everything. Although it may have been because of one too many safe (read: mainstream) choices, there were no total duds among the films this correspondent viewed this week. Some may not have been as enthralling as others but none were crappy enough to make you head for the train home. And there are always a few that percolate in your head for longer than their 90-odd-minute running time.
Most emotional: The action in Pina, director Wim Wenders' homage to recently deceased dancer Pina Bausch in 3D is so beautiful it might just make you cry.
Most thought provoking: Werner Herzog's 3D exploration of the most ancient cave art known to humankind was more than just a stroll through the stalactites. Cave of Forgotten Dreams was also a journey back to the beginnings of art. And the German documentary Taste the Waste will make you think twice about your supermarket habits.
Most unexpected: Bombay Beach. Who would have thought, a documentary that looks into the residents of a dying town in southern California, where the subjects burst into apparently spontaneous synchronised dance (and they're not dancers)! Great music, beautiful pictures, interesting folk.
Most Romantic: The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye. After all what could be more romantic than getting cosmetic surgery so you can look like one another.
Prettiest Pictures: The unlikely Under Control, a documentary about German's nuclear power stations. The director, who is also an accomplished camera man, makes huge cooling towers and bare legged German men in blue coats look ravishing.
Creepiest By Three Vials of Blood: Vampire, starring Keisha Castle-Hughes. The blood suckers are out there, they're just not what you expected.