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Mati Diop’s documentary Dahomey wins top prize at Berlin film festival

<span>Mati Diop poses with her Golden Bear.</span><span>Photograph: Sebastian Reuter/Getty Images</span>
Mati Diop poses with her Golden Bear.Photograph: Sebastian Reuter/Getty Images

Mati Diop’s documentary on the first major return of looted treasures from Europe to Africa beat several veteran directors to the top prize at the Berlin film festival.

The 41-year-old Senegalese-French director’s one-hour film, Dahomey, follows a hoard of 26 treasures on their 2021 return journey from Paris to Benin, from where they were looted by French forces almost a century and a half earlier.

Dahomey shows the celebrations in Benin’s economic capital, Cotonou, that greeted the priceless artefacts, including a towering wooden throne and lifesize zoomorphic statues, but also shows young people asking what will happen to the thousands of objects that remain in French museums.

Related: Dahomey review – interrogative reverie about looted African sculptures

“To restitute is to do justice,” Diop said upon the receipt of her prize. “We can either get rid of the past as an unpleasant burden that only hinders our evolution, or we can take the responsibility and use it as the basis for moving forward. We have to choose.”

Dahomey’s triumph was a surprise outcome to the 74th edition of the Berlin film festival, with Diop taking home the Golden Bear for best film over veteran film-makers such as Olivier Assayas and Hong Sang-soo as well as critics’ choice My Favourite Cake, by Iranian film-makers Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha.

In recent years, the festival’s directors have faced criticism for allowing a gulf between the Berlinale and the two bigger and glitzier film events, Venice and Cannes, to narrow rather than close. But by awarding the top prize to Dahomey, the jury doubled down on Berlin’s distinctive, more political and less populist identity.

Related: France should return much more looted African art, film-maker says

Earlier during the ceremony, one judge likened the Berlinale to a “safe space for films that cannot be shown elsewhere”. Handing the best director to Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias’s Pepe, an entertaining but also decidedly experimental art film about Pablo Escobar’s cocaine hippos, further cemented that profile.

Romanian-American actor Sebastian Stan won the best actor Silver Bear for his role in bleak doppelganger comedy A Different Man, while Emily Watson won best supporting actor for her role as a sinister mother superior in Magdalene Laundries drama Small Things Like These. German director Matthias Glasner won best screenplay for his black comedy about an emotionally dysfunctional family, Sterben (Dying).

Palestinian film No Other Land, about the eradication of Palestinian villages in the West Bank, won best documentary in the Encounters category, having already scooped one of the festival’s two audience awards, which are voted for directly by filmgoers.

Made by a collective of four young film-makers, the documentary follows Palestinian activist Basel Adra and Israeli journalist Yuval Abraham, who form an unlikely alliance to document the community of Masafer Yatta being destroyed by Israel’s occupation.

Accepting his prize, Adra said it was hard for him to celebrate while tens of thousands of his compatriots were being “slaughtered and massacred by Israel in Gaza”. He urged Germany to “respect UN calls and stop sending weapons to Israel”.

“This apartheid, this inequality, it has to end,” his creative collaborator Abraham said. “We need to call for a ceasefire, for a political solution.”

The war in the Middle East was more prominent during the awards ceremony than the festival itself, with several winners and judges using their turn on the mic to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. Accepting the Encounters best film award for his documentary Direct Action, American director Ben Russell wore a keffiyeh, the symbol of Palestinian nationalism. Diop, the night’s surprise winner, also expressed her solidarity with Palestine.

The 74th Berlinale is the fifth and final edition of the film festival directed by Italian artistic director Carlo Chatrian and German managing director Mariëtte Rissenbeek, who are passing on the baton to Tricia Tuttle, the former head of the BFI London film festival.