Italian director Gianfranco Rosi won the Berlin Film Festival's top prize on Saturday for Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea) about the refugee crisis that has engulfed the small Italian island of Lampedusa.

Rosi's win represents the first time that a documentary film has been awarded a Golden Bear in more than six decades.

Fuocoammare was one of a series of films screened at this year's festival that have focused on the plight of migrants and refugees around the world.

"My deepest thought goes to those that never made it on their journey of hope," said Rosi, whose native Eritrea is a point of origin for many of the Europe-bound refugees.

He dedicated his award to the people of Lampedusa, who showed great humanity in the face of the numbers of refugees arriving on their island.

Now in its 66th year, the Berlinale has a reputation for never shying away from major political issues or tough social questions, and this year's event was taking place in the midst of rising political tensions in Europe over the influx of migrants and refugees in the region.

"(Fuocoammare) goes to the heart of what the Berlinale is about," said three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep, who headed the seven-member jury.

Lying between Tunisia and Sicily, Lampedusa is often the first port of call for hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East en route to Europe, normally after enduring perilous journeys in their bid for a new life.

Thousands have perished trying to reach the island after setting out on their dangerous sea crossings in decrepit boats.

Rosi's film begins with a chilly radio message to the coast guard on Lampedusa from a group of refugees pleading for help as their boat was sinking.

Fuocoammare also won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the Amnesty International film prize.

Rosi won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival three years ago for his documentary Sacro GRA, portraying life on the highway circling Rome.

Underlining the Berlinale's focus on the refugee crisis this year, Hollywood actor George Clooney and his wife Amal, who were attending the festival, met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week to discuss the global refugee crisis.

In addition, the Berlinale made a point this year of employing refugees in several positions across the festival, opened screenings to asylum seekers and also had donation boxes.

Two shorts films on migrants won major prizes on Saturday.  

Fuocoammare was one of 18 movies battling it out for top honours.

Oscar-winning Bosnian director Danis Tanovic won the festival's Jury Grand Prize, considered the festival's second most-prestigious award after the Golden Bear, for his film Death in Sarajevo.

Tanovic's film shows a contemporary Bosnia and Herzegovina still seething with tensions from the past and with the mafia gaining the upper hand across life in the small Balkan state.

French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Love won the festival's Silver Bear for best director for her fifth feature movie L'avenir (Things to come) about a woman facing up to the onset of old age after the shock breakup of her marriage.

The Alfred Bauer Prize for a feature film that opens new perspectives in cinema was awarded to Filipino director Lav Diaz for his eight-hour-long A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, which is set against the 1986-87 revolution in his country.

The best actress award went to Denmark's Trine Dyrholm for her role as a woman who decides to create a commune of friends in Thomas Vinterberg's The Commune.

Tunisia's Majd Mastoura won the best male acting award for playing a young man torn between a traditional and a modern way of life in Mohamed Ben Attia's Hedi.

Set in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring in Tunisia, Attia's romantic drama was the first Tunisian film to be selected for the Berlinale's main competition for two decades.

Mastoura dedicated his award to all the Tunisians who had been involved in the country's revolution.

The best script award went to Polish director-writer Tomasz Wasilewski for his movie United States of Love about four women facing turning points in their lives just as communism and the Cold War have come to an end across Central Europe.

The jury also awarded Silver Bears for artistic achievement to camera man Mark Lee Ping for his work on Chinese director Yang Chao for Chang Jiang Tu (Crosscurrent)

Set against the unpredictable currents of China's Yangtze River, Yang's film tells the story of a young captain who steers his cargo boat along the river in a mystical and poetic search for the love of his life.

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