BERLIN — Iranian dissident filmmaker Jafar Panahi's movie "Taxi," in which the director stars as a taxi driver talking to passengers as he navigates the streets of Tehran, won the top Golden Bear prize Saturday at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Panahi, 54, has been unable to leave Iran after his 2010 conviction on charges of "making propaganda" against the country's ruling system. Authorities imposed a 20-year filmmaking ban on Panahi, but he has continued to make movies.
ABSENT WINNER, TEARFUL NIECE
Panahi couldn't be in Berlin but his niece, Hana Saeidi, was on hand for a tearful acceptance of the Golden Bear statuette. "I'm not able to say anything — I'm too moved," said Saeidi, who herself appears in the movie.
"Limitations often inspire filmmakers to storytellers to make better work, but sometimes those limitations can be so suffocating they destroy a project and often damage the soul of the artist," said the Berlin jury president, American director Darren Aronofsky.
"Instead of allowing his spirit to be crushed and giving up, instead of allowing himself to be filled with anger and frustration, Jafar Panahi created a love letter to cinema," Aronofsky said. "His film is filled with love for his art, his community, his country and his audience."
Panahi has been a familiar figure at international film festivals over the years, even in absentia. In 2011, he was invited to sit on the Berlin festival's jury and his seat was left symbolically empty. "Closed Curtain," which he co-directed with longtime friend Kamboziya Partovi, competed at the festival two years ago.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
In a statement in the festival program, Panahi said he "can't do anything else but make films."
"Cinema is my expression and the meaning of my life," he wrote. "Nothing can prevent me from making films."
The grand jury prize, which comes with a Silver Bear statuette, went to Chilean director Pablo Larrain's movie "The Club." The film focuses on a group of Roman Catholic priests who have committed crimes or dishonored the church and have been rehoused in a small town by the sea.
"There's been many, many things that have been happening around the idea of God, many people that have suffered and been killed under the name of God," Larrain said as he accepted the prize.
He said he hoped that will stop one day.
COURTENAY CATCHES UP; RAMPLING MEDALS IN BERLIN
The best actor and best actress awards went to Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, who play a couple in British director Andrew Haigh's drama "45 Years."
In the film, the couple's 45th wedding anniversary preparations are disrupted by the news that the body of the husband's ex-girlfriend has been found in the Alps after five decades.
Both winners looked to the past as they accepted their Silver Bear statuettes.
"My friend Albert Finney won one of these in 1985 ... it's only taken me 30 years to catch up with him," Courtenay said.
Rampling said she first heard of Berlin when she was very small because her father won a gold medal at the 1936 Olympics in the city.
"I, as a very competitive young woman at that time, wanted to achieve something myself in Berlin," she said. "I think this bear has done the trick."
OTHER HONORS IN BERLIN
The jury awarded two best director honors to Romania's Radu Jude for "Aferim!" — a black-and-white Balkan Western that explores racial prejudice — and to Malgorzata Szumowska of Poland for "Body," which looks at how people deal with grief.
The best script award went to director-scriptwriter Patricio Guzman for "The Pearl Button," a documentary that delves into the history of Chile.
Another Latin American entry, the festival's first from Guatemala, took the Alfred Bauer prize for innovation. "Ixcanul Volcano," a tale about the trafficking of a Mayan girl that director Jayro Bustamante says is based on a real person's story, is Bustamante's first feature film.
The honors for outstanding artistic contributions went to the camera work of two films: German director Sebastian Schipper's "Victoria" and "Under Electric Clouds" from Alexey German of Russia.
In all, 19 films competed at this year's festival.