Rodd Rathjen’s debut feature Buoyancy has been awarded a prize from the Ecumenical Jury after its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Representing Interfilm and Signis, the international film organisations of the Protestant and Catholic Churches, the jury honours the directors whose films succeed in portraying actions or human experiences that are in keeping with the Gospels or in sensitising viewers to spiritual, human or social values.

Rathjen won a cash prize of €2,500 ($A3,960) for the drama set in rural Cambodia which follows 14-year-old Chakra (Sarm Heng), who sets off to escape his family’s poverty but is enslaved aboard a Thai fishing trawler. Squalor and cruelty threaten to crush his spirit but he finds the courage to break the chains.

Out of 45 titles from 38 countries which screened in the festival’s Panorama section, the jury chose Buoyancy as an exquisitely-crafted debut feature which serves as an “an interrogation of modern-day slavery and a uniquely harrowing coming-of-age tale. By exposing brutal reality through its tightly-woven narrative, this artistic call to action sheds necessary light on much-overlooked human rights abuses at the heart of our global economy.”

Charades and Echo Studio is handling international sales for the producers, Causeway Films’ Sam Jennings, Kristina Ceyton and Rita Walsh in association with Cambodia’s Anupheap Productions and Melbourne-based Definition Films. “We’ve had great reactions from the market as well as audiences,” Jennings tells IF.

Among the first reviews, the BFI’s Paul O’Callaghan hailed the film inspired by appalling true accounts of modern slavery in Southeast Asia as both harrowing and briskly entertaining.

Screen Daily’s Sarah Ward described it as brutal and powerful, praising newcomer Heng’s performance as captivating with a rawness that ranges beyond his non-professional status — a mix of perseverance and fragility that feels steeped in truth, yet fine-tuned to the movie’s story.

Similarly Ward praised co-stars Mony Ros as a fellow worker and Thai filmmaker/actor Thanawut Kasro as Rom Ran, the sadistic trawler captain, for making exactly the impact that the script requires.

Shot in Thai and Khmer with English sub-titles, the film will be released by Umbrella Entertainment after its Melbourne International Film Festival premiere. Funding came from Screen Australia, Feracious Entertainment, the MIFF Premiere Fund, Film Victoria and Definition Films.

The festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear, went to Israeli director Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms, a French-German-Israeli co-production which stars first-timer Tom Mercier as a young Israeli man who tries to reinvent himself in Paris with the help of a Franco-Israeli dictionary.

Lapid acknowledged that his provocative film might be considered scandalous by some but added, “for me, this film is a big celebration of cinema.”

The Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize went to François Ozon’s French drama By the Grace of God, a fact-based account of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal behind the trial of Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon.

German filmmaker Angela Schanelec won best director for her drama about a troubled family, I Was at Home, But.

In another win for a German film, the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize went to Nora Fingscheidt’s System Crasher, about a disturbed young girl who yearns to be with her mother as she falls through Germany’s child welfare system.

The festival jury headed by Juliette Binoche awarded the best actor and actress Silver Bears to the stars of Wang Xiaoshuai’s Chinese drama So Long, My Son, Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei.

Maurizio Braucci, Claudio Giovannesi and Roberto Saviano won best screenplay for their examination of troubled youth in Piranhas.

The Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution went to Danish cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk for his work on Hans Petter Moland’s Out Stealing Horses.

Suhaib Gasmelbari took the Berlinale Glashütte Original – Documentary Award for Talking About Trees, which chronicles the efforts of a group of film enthusiasts to revive an old cinema in Sudan.

The fest closed on a sombre note with news that Swiss actor Bruno Ganz (Downfall, Wings of Desire) had died in Zurich from colon cancer, aged 77.

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