Washington DC, April 26, 2009 (SIGNIS) - A Japanese film, Departures (Okuribito) by Yojiro Takita, has received the first SIGNIS Prize at Washington's FilmFest DC for its "reverence for human dignity," according to Frank Frost, Jury chair.

"Okuribito literally means 'the one who sees people off...'. Drawing on Japanese respect and reverence for the dignity of the dead and meticulous detail of the rituals, Departures combines serious drama with human foibles comedy. A young man discovers himself, his love for his wife, and reconciliation with his father through his skills in preparing the dead for their transition through 'the gateway to a new life'. Beautifully crafted with finely nuanced acting," the Jury commented.

Departures tells the story of an orchestral musician who loses his job in an economic downturn. Returning to his ancestral village, he stumbles into a job assisting a man who "encoffins" the dead. The practitioner he assists educates him in the meticulous rituals that lend dignity to the dead and consolation to the bereaved. "The film is shot with an art and grace that infuses a sense of human dignity even to the grave," says Frost. At the same time it deals serio-comically with the prejudice that the practitioners must face from a population doing all it can to avoid the question of death.

In addition to the SIGNIS Prize, the Jury chose to give special Commendations to two other films of exceptional quality. The Canadian film, The Necessities of Life , directed by Benoit Pilon, tells the story of an Inuit man torn from his family in his Arctic home to be hospitalized for tuberculosis at a Catholic hospital in Quebec, and the cultural gulf that must be bridged by both sides.

"Benoit Pilon draws on his documentary background to tell of tensions, misunderstanding, communication, and healing between ancient and new cultures. Tivii the Inuit, infected with tuberculosis, has been forcibly removed from his Arctic home to a Catholic hospital in Quebec. Through the mitigations of a kind nurse, a needy child of his own race, and compassionate priests, he is able to go home again. The film demonstrates the values of empathy and understanding across cultural differences."

Kabei , directed by Yoji Yamada, tells the story of a man in 1940 Japan who is imprisoned for thought crimes for criticizing the country's "crusade" against China. The problems that beset his family and relatives in the ensuing war years gives a fresh perspective on the destructiveness war inflicts on the human fabric.

"In 1940 Japan, a father of two young children is arrested for thought crimes for opposing the country's “crusade” against China. The hardships forced upon his wife and family probes the destructiveness of misplaced patriotism and the horror of war from a fresh perspective. Beautifully filmed in an intimate style, it captures the pain of war at an individual level, maintaining a sense of human dignity in the face of personal and national tragedy."

The members of the Jury were Frank Frost (USA), Peter Malone (Australia) and Marjorie Suchocki (USA). Frank Frost is an award-winning documentary producer who represents the United States affiliate of SIGNIS, the Catholic Academy for Communication Arts Professionals. Rev. Peter Malone, MSC, is head of the SIGNIS film desk, chair of many SIGNIS and Ecumenical juries at Cannes and other European festivals, and author of several books on film and spirituality. Marjorie Suchocki, Professor Emerita from Claremont School of Theology, Director of the Whitehead Film Festival, and author of multiple books on theology and film.

The SIGNIS award at Filmfest DC, an international film festival now in its 23rd year, is an extension of the awards SIGNIS has been providing at major international festivals since 1947, including Cannes, Venice, and Berlin. SIGNIS juries now participate in festivals in more than thirty countries. By its presence in the professional cinema world, SIGNIS seeks to contribute in a concrete way to the development of a cinema aimed towards human and spiritual values. This marks the first time a SIGNIS Jury has served at a U.S. festival. "We are pleased to become partners with SIGNIS in offering recognition to films demonstrating significant human values," says Tony Gittens, the festival's director. "We look forward to having them back next year."

Filmfest DC this year included more than 70 films from around the world, including world premieres, DC premieres, international headliners and award winners, and Official Foreign Language Film Oscar® Selections. This year's festival had a special focus on films from Eastern Europe and Japan.

"Filmfest DC is a good match for a SIGNIS Jury," says Rev. Peter Malone, MSC, chair of SIGNIS' Film Desk. "The selection of films at Filmfest DC is unusually high in reflecting a wide range of human and spiritual values. And our jury examines films from the perspective of the degree to which films honestly probe and illumine what it means to be human."