Film Critiquing Iranian Death Penalty Wins Berlin's Golden Bear

Director Mohammad Rasoulof was unable to leave Iran to pick up the award because of propaganda charges he faces in relation to earlier films

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Baran Rasoulof and producers Kaveh Farnam and Farzad Pak pose with the Golden Bear for Best Film for "There Is No Evil" at the 70th Berlinale International Film Festival, February 29, 2020.
Baran Rasoulof and producers Kaveh Farnam and Farzad Pak pose with the Golden Bear for Best Film for "There Is No Evil" at the 70th Berlinale International Film Festival, February 29, 2020. Credit: MICHELE TANTUSSI/ REUTERS

A drama film shot in secret to evade government censorship that highlights the moral dilemmas faced by those caught in the web of Iran's capital punishment machine won the Berlin Film Festival's Golden Bear award on Saturday.

"There Is No Evil" explores the moral dilemmas thrust on those who carry out executions and the consequences of defiance for them and those around them.

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Director Mohammad Rasoulof, whose film shows that there are costs to both bravery and cowardice, was not allowed to leave Iran to pick up the award: he faces propaganda charges over his earlier films.

His daughter Baran, who stars in one chapter of the four-part film, picked up the award on his behalf in the German capital and later held up before the cameras a smartphone on which the director addressed a news conference by video call.

Director Mohammad Rasoulof speaks through a cellphone held by daughter Baran during a news conference after the Berlinale International Film Festival, Berlin, Germany February 29, 2020.Credit: ANNEGRET HILSE/ REUTERS

"This film is about people taking responsibility," he said. "I wanted to talk about people who push responsibility away from themselves and say that the decision is taken by higher powers. But they can actually say no, and that's their strength."

Each of the film's chapters depicts a man chosen to carry out an execution: some refuse, some obey. But whatever path they choose, the consequences, good and bad, for them and their loved ones, echo down the decades.

Shot indoors, at night, or in remote rural locations to avoid catching authorities' attention, the film carried risks for cast and crew who had themselves taken a decision to "put their lives in danger to make this film," said producer Farzad Pak.

The jury president, British actor Jeremy Irons, hailed the way the film showed "the web an authoritarian regime weaves among ordinary people, drawing them towards inhumanity," noting that the film's lessons about individual responsibility went far beyond Iran.

Rights groups say Iran executed at least 227 people in 2019. Capital crimes include "insulting the Prophet", same-sex relations, adultery and non-violent drug offences, according to Human Rights Watch.

Asked about suggestions circulating on Iranian social media that the film was being favoured for its political message, producer Kaveh Farnam said: "Every time that an independent Iranian film wins an award the regime says that it's all worthless, they say that we're exploiting the situation in the west."

Director Eliza Hittman and actors Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder during the 70th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin, Germany, February 25, 2020.Credit: MICHELE TANTUSSI/ REUTERS

The second-place Silver Bear went to Eliza Hittman's "Never Rarely Sometimes Always", the story of two teenagers from the rural United States defying anti-abortion activists, poverty, physical and mental harassment, and expensive healthcare to obtain a pregnancy termination.

Korea's Hong Sangsoo won a best director Silver Bear for "The Woman Who Ran", a miniature about female friendship, loneliness, men who intrude, and a cat who, filmed washing itself and yawning, left audiences in stitches of laughter.

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