By Stephen Brown*
A film depicting a woman – Petrunya – who breaks church and social traditions by grabbing a cross thrown by an Orthodox priest into an icy river in an Epiphany ritual meant for young men has been awarded the prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 69th Berlinale film festival in the German capital.
Announcing the prize for the film “God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya” (“Gospod postoi, imeto i’ e Petrunija”) by Teona Struga Mitevska of North Macadonia, jury president Anna Grebe described it as a “modern day parable for its daring portrayal of the transformation of a disempowered young woman into an outspoken defender of women’s rights.”
The film depicts how Petrunya, after retrieving the cross from the river, holds on to it for a day and a night in the face of fierce opposition before finally returning the cross to the priest.
“Petrunya at first seems to be a very shy and introverted person and suddenly we realise that there is a strength in her that has not been discovered before and through the cross and the rescue of the cross her inner strength is unleashed,” said Grebe, a consultant for media, youth politics, and digital transformation in Berlin, in comments after the 16 February award ceremony.
The Ecumenical Jury is appointed by Interfilm, the international interchurch film organization, and SIGNIS, the World Catholic Association for Communication.
Jury member Kristine Greenaway from Canada said that the film made a “very powerful statement about how in a post-institutional world we can still encounter God.”
She pointed to the film’s final scene in which the cross is returned to the priest who desperately wants it back, with Petrunya saying that the priest and his congregation needed it, not her.
“This was God transforming people’s understanding of what it is to relate to the transcendent,” said Greenaway. “You can be in direct relationship to the transcendent and you do not have to be bound in by institutional rules and regulations such as the ones that said she should not have been in the water grabbing that cross.”
Altogether there were about 400 films presented as part of the Berlinale, which ran from 7 to 17 February, of which 16 were in competition for the festival’s most prestigious prize, the Golden Bear.
The Berlinale has taken place annually since 1951 and this year’s event marked the retirement of festival director Dieter Kosslick after 18 years. Speaking before the award of the Ecumenical Jury, Kosslick described the Berlinale as both a festival for the public and a political festival. “We have to fight for human rights,” he said. “This is in our DNA as a film festival.”
The main international jury presided by Juliette Binoche awarded the Golden Bear to “Synonyms” (“Synonymes”) by Nadav Lapid, a film that depicts the challenges facing a young Israeli trying to put down roots in Paris, a process that awakes past demons and forces him to face an existential abyss.
The Silver Bear Grand Jury prize went to “By the Grace of God” (“Grâce à Dieu”) by François Ozon which depicts church sexual abuse in the city of Lyon, and is based on the case of a French priest who has been accused of assaulting about 70 boys and is due to stand trial.
As well as its prize for a film in the main competition of the festival, the Ecumenical Jury also awards films in the Forum and Panorama sections of the Berlinale.
In the Forum section, the jury awarded its prize to the film “Earth” (“Erde”) directed by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Austria, for its depiction of the devastation of the planet by human intervention, commending the lamentation for Mother Earth spoken by an aboriginal Canadian woman at the conclusion of the film.
In the Panorama section, the jury awarded its prize to “Buoyancy,” directed by Rodd Rathjen, Australia, which follows a 14-year-old rural Cambodian boy as he sets off to escape his family's poverty, but is enslaved aboard a Thai fishing trawler. It gave a commendation to “Midnight Traveler,” directed by Hassan Fazili, who chronicled his family’s flight from Afghanistan solely through footage from three mobile phones.
* Stephen Brown is editor of The Ecumenical Review and president of the Europe region of the World Association for Christian Communication