In the glitzy realm of German cinema, an event stands as a beacon, illuminating the path for emerging talents, the FIRST STEPS Awards. From promising actors to visionary directors and innovative producers, the awards ceremony at the esteemed Theater des Westens is a celebration of creativity, dedication, and the magic woven into every film reel.
THE FIRST STEPS AWARD: THE HERITAGE & THE VENUE
The FIRST STEPS Award was initiated in 1999 by film industry luminaries Bernd Eichinger (The Neverending Story, Christiane F.) and Nico Hofmann. It stands as the preeminent accolade for emerging talents in the German-speaking film industry.
Functioning as a private initiative of the film community, the awards aim to foster and honor outstanding achievements in film school graduation projects. Not only does it hold the distinction of being the most significant award for such projects, but it is also the most generously endowed, with a prize fund totaling 119,000 euros.
The FIRST STEPS awards, recognizing excellence in various categories like directing, producing, cinematography, and acting, are a pivotal launchpad for budding filmmakers.
The event provides the talents with the visibility and support crucial for their fledgling careers.
The ceremony has become a glamorous annual event, where the red carpet unfurls to welcome promising talents who have demonstrated exceptional skills and creativity. The Theater des Westens in Berlin has a fascinating history. It opened in 1895 and has undergone numerous changes over the years. Originally known as a circus theater, it became a renowned operetta house.
During the turbulent times of the 20th century, the Theater des Westens underwent multiple redesigns and renovations. Today, it is a historic landmark that represents Berlin’s cultural diversity. Besides, it’s famous for its top-notch musicals far beyond the Berlin borders. Let us introduce you to some of this year’s nominees and guests at the FIRST STEPS Award, starting with the impressive female talents.
MILENA ABOYAN (DIRECTOR, WRITER)
Together, Milena Aboyan and Bayan Layla embody a powerful creative duo, leaving an indelible mark on the world of storytelling. It’s no wonder that both were nominated this year at the FIRST STEPS Awards for their powerful film ELAHA.
Milena was born a Yazidi Kurd in Armenia. Her artistic journey began with acting. However, soon it eventually pivoted to writing. Her work as a Dramaturgy Assistant for a TV primetime series showcased her versatility. Hence, Milena received the Emder Screenplay Award in 2019. Furthermore, her film ELAHA earned the “Kaiju Cinema Diffusion Prize” at Locarno.
BAYAN LAYLA – ACTRESS AND WINNER FIST STEPS YOUNG TALENT AWARD
Bayan Layla originally comes from Syria. She studied architecture before venturing into theater. Bayan’s acting career took off in 2016 in Dresden. For her film debut ELAHA, Bayan already received the Bunte New Faces Award this year. Now, she is the lucky winner of the Götz-George Young Talent Award at the FIRST STEPS ceremony.
The jury explains their decision as follows:
This role demands courage and a lot more. It’s about self-determination, freedom, and ultimately the right to one’s sexuality and one’s own body. In a restrictive community, the young Elaha looks for her path. Bayan Layla makes no compromises in her acting and manages to brilliantly show the contradictions of her environment in the conflict of her character. Sometimes childlike and vulnerable, then very determined, fearless, rebellious, but above all powerful, she plays Elaha. A difficult balancing act Bayan Layla masters it in a nuanced way and delights us with her screen presence.
Currently, the charismatic actress appears in the Amazon series “Mandy und die Mächte des Bösen” (Mandy and the Forces of Evil). More information about ELAHA can be found on the website of the Berlin Film Festival Berlinale.
The German Lorna Ishema studied acting in Munich. Because of her talent, she gained early recognition at the Munich Kammerspiele. As the first acting scholarship recipient from the Deutschlandstiftung Integration, she showcased her diverse talents.
Her TV debut in the TV crime series Polizeiruf 110 marked a turning point. It led to remarkable roles in productions like Amazon’s You Are Wanted. Notable collaborations with directors Maria Schrader and Emily Atef followed.
Lorna’s exceptional performance in IVIE WIE IVIE earned her the 2021 German Film Award for Best Supporting Actress. Furthermore, in the 2023 Netflix production Paradise, she continues to captivate audiences with her talent.
BRENDA AKELE JORDE
Brenda Akele Jorde is a Hamburg native. However, the charismatic filmmaker instantly infects everyone with her charisma and energy. Brenda discovered her passion for documentary filmmaking during her media studies at the University of Potsdam.
Potsdam, which is closely connected to Berlin, was and is still one of Europe’s most important filmmaking spots. Many Hollywood films were produced here. Valkyrie with Tom Cruise, V for Vendetta with Natalie Portman, and The Bourne Ultimatum with Matt Damon are among them. Furthermore, Quentin Tarantino produced Inglourious Basterds with Brad Pitt here.
Cloud Atlas with Tom Hanks, The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson, and Bridge of Spies by Steven Spielberg are some other highlights. Finally, The Hunger Games with Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth, and Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War are productions that we shouldn’t forget.
Branda’s graduation project, the short film “VA-BENE,” earned her international acclaim. She pursued a master’s in documentary film directing at the Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF from 2018 to 2022.
FIRST STEPS BIG AUDIENCE AWARD
As a German Black screenwriter, director, and producer, Merle Grimme actively advocates for diversity and inclusion in the film industry. She studied documentary film and television journalism at the University of Television and Film Munich. Her social spot “DER DEUTSCHE KINDERWUNSCH?” won the Jury Prize of the ZEIT Legacy Study in 2017.
Completing her diploma at HFF Munich with the feature film and mini-series “CLASHING DIFFERENCES,” Grimme introduced an inclusive production concept. In 2020, she founded Connected Differences e.V., highlighting the need for diversity in support networks.
In 2023, “CLASHING DIFFERENCES” won Best Screenplay at the Munich Film Festival and received the Big Audience Award at the First Steps Awards.
Instead of the usual dramatic downward spiral, the film uses the means of satire to show a current social issue.
It requires courage and, above all, self-confidence. In CLASHING DIFFERENCES, Merle Grimme shows with her book and direction that she is not afraid to reach the “big audience”.
Moreover, she wants to take them along with her through humor and a sharp eye.
And she succeeds in doing this in both the film and the series without losing her signature and only telling the story for her own “bubble”.
Merle Grimme’s debut therefore stands out as a complete work, especially in the selection and management of a great ensemble from the multitude of productions by experienced filmmakers who deal with the topic of diversity and identity. We look forward to more.
Harriet is another artist who undoubtedly belongs on the big international stage. She was born in Munich and began her acting career eight years ago in the short film Was ich schon immer tun wollte (What I’ve always wanted to do).
She gained recognition in 2016 with the lead role in Das Pubertier. Of course, the kids film and TV series Bibi & Tina in which she starred in a leading role, was Harriet’s big breakthrough.
Her upcoming project is the fairy tale film Das Märchen Von Der Zauberflöte, (The Fairy Tale of The Magic Flute) scheduled to air on TV at Christmas.
Joyce Sanhá was born in Rotterdam and grew up in Hamburg. Inspired by Woopy Goldberg and The Lion King musical, she began taking acting lessons at the age of seven. So, she attended the YTP Stage School Hamburg and appeared in various films later.
They include an episode of the TV series Der Tatortreiniger and, most recently, in Fatih Akin’s gangster drama Rheingold.
In 2021, she commenced her acting studies at the Thomas Bernhard Institute of the University Mozarteum Salzburg, receiving the acting scholarship from the Deutschlandstiftung GEH DEINEN WEG (Go Your Way).
Since the current season, Joyce Sanhá is a member of the ensemble at the Münchner Kammerspiele.
In 2010, Pauline Afaja took part in the show Germany’s Next Top Model by Heidi Klum. Since then she has also worked as a model for commercials. However, her passion is acting. Pauline studied at the Hamburg Free Drama School.
While still studying, which she completed in 2015, she took part in film and theater productions. She appeared in the film Kartoffelsalat with Otto Waalkes and various short films.
Since 2018, Pauline Afaja has also been working as a lecturer for “role” at the Hamburg Free Drama School.
She has also recorded several audiobooks as a speaker, including Nightsky Full of Promise and Feminism is or Everyone. Pauline Afaja also appeared in the radio play “Asphalthelden” by youth book star Jason Reynolds.
Victoire Laly, who moved from the sunny cradle of Voodoo, Benin, to Berlin at eight, made a mark in the film industry with roles in TV crime series and productions.
In 2022, she took her first lead role in the TV film Flügel aus Beton, (Concrete Wings). For this production, she earned the Red Cross Award at the Festival de Télévision de Monte-Carlo.
Furthermore, she was nominated for the German Actors Award in the category Starker Auftritt (Strong Appearance) for her role in the Barcelona-Krimi.
Victoire is also a singer in the duo Kai & Victoire, residing in Berlin, and fluent in French and German.
PAULA KNUEPLING & MARINA PRADOS
Paula Knuepling and Marina Prados are the creative forces behind Ladybitches Productions. Paula was born in Berlin. She started her acting career at the age of eight in film and television productions under well-established directors. Today, she is active as an author, director, and producer herself. Same with Marina.
She moved from Barcelona to Berlin in 2016, Here, she first studied acting. However, she transitioned her career away from this to the fields mentioned before. Her work spans theaters like Ballhaus Ost Berlin, Maxim-Gorki Theater, and more.
They both got married in 2018. Furthermore, both co-founded the GenZ media company Ladybitches Productions in 2021. The company focuses on promoting queer working structures and representations.
Moreover, their debut film LADYBITCH was nominated for the Feature-Length Film FIRST STEPS Award last year. It addresses the directors’ personal experiences with abuse in the film and theater industry.
Jobel Mokonzi, born in Angola and residing in Germany since 2007, is multilingual, fluent in German, her native French, Lingala, and English. After completing primary and secondary school, Jobel moved to Essen following the 10th grade.
There, she initially obtained a dual degree as a Clothing Technical Assistant and completed her vocational baccalaureate. Subsequently, she pursued training at the Sheraton Hotel. However, a pivotal moment occurred during her first year of training when a call redirected her focus to her passion for acting.
Jobel then took on the lead role of Sam Mpélé in the successful series DRUCK for four seasons. Since 2021, Jobel Mokonzi has portrayed the character Fanta in the TNT series PARA – WIR SIND KING, produced by the creators of the successful German series 4 Blocks.
ZOÉ DUMAS was born in Titisee-Neustadt, but she was raised in Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean.
After graduating from school, Zoe worked as a video editor, and sound and camera assistant.
During this time, she took part in the production of two documentaries.
From 2019 to 2023 she studied director of photography at the ifs (Internationale Filmschule Köln).
Luckily, the Film- und Medienstiftung NRW supported her graduation film El Mártir (The Martyr) which was shot in Spain.
Melissa Byrne, born in 1997 in Oxford, UK, produced several short films during her studies at the University of Television and Film Munich, including “LIFE IS NOT A COMPETITION, BUT I’M WINNING,” which earned her the this year’s FIRST STEPS: NO FEAR Award nomination. Besides, Melissa has been working as a writing producer at NORDPOLARIS since 2020.
Because of her Georgian roots, Anna Bardavelidze visited the school in Tbilisi for one year. Then, she began her acting training at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Frankfurt am Main. During the studio year at Schauspiel Frankfurt, she collaborated with different directors.
Moreover, Anna was awarded scholarships from the Liesl-Christ Foundation for Bilingualism and the German National Academic Foundation. Since the last year, she has been engaged at the Residenz theater.
Even after the curtain has closed, this gathering of talents creates an overall cinematic image that reflects the wealth, diversity, and future of the German film industry. Each artist, nominated or not, contributes to a story that transcends the screen – an unfolding narrative filled with passion, creativity, and the magic of storytelling.
Malin Krüger is a true Berliner. She began her career in theater, film, and literature. After her training as a media management assistant, she joined the renowned Film Academy Baden-Württemberg.
She produced the BAFTA-nominated short film “FATJONA” and the animated short “OBERVOGELGESANG,” nominated for the German Short Film Award.
Working as a Junior Producer at Amusement Park, she was nominated for the NO FEAR Award at the First Steps Awards for her graduation film A CALLING . FROM THE DESERT . TO THE SEA.
Taneshia Abt discovered her passion for energetic roles at the renowned Friedrichstadt-Palast in Berlin. Specializing in theater with a German-French baccalaureate, she performed at prestigious venues, not only in Berlin.
Beyond the stage, Taneshia is a values ambassador for the German Dream Initiative. Furthermore, she’s a jury member at the German Television Crime Festival and an active member of the Deutsche Filmakademie. Living in Berlin, she also hosts an 8-part interactive magic online course titled Der Achtsame Tiger (The Mindful Tiger) and shares stories about her two cats and Papageno on Instagram.
Sara Fazilat, born in Tehran and raised in Germany, is a versatile figure. She is an actress, film producer, and screenwriter. Sara studied at renowned institutions like RADA and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. More than ten years ago, she began film production studies at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin and Columbia University.
Fazilat gained recognition with NICHT ZU FRÜH, NICHT ZU SPÄT (Not Too Early, Not Too Late) in Cannes. Awards she earned honors, including the Emder Screenplay Award (2019) and the FIRST STEPS NO FEAR Award (2021).
Furthermore, she founded THIRD CULTURE KIDS and serves on Pro Quote Film’s board. Beyond her film career, she was the host of this year’s First Steps Awards.
Text: Dena Bahadori and Marco Kokkot