U-Carmen eKhayelitsha is the film debut of British theatre director Mark Domford-May. He moved the story of Carmen the opera to a South African township of Khayelitsha and translated the songs in Xhosa. His film, which received little buzz during the festival, was the surprise winner of the Golden Bear.

A much more likely candidate would have been Hotel Rwanda, which was nominated for three Oscars, and delivers both in terms of content (Rwandan hotel manager saves thousands of lives) and in star power (Don Cheadle is one of the best actors around). The festival’s opening film Man to Man by Régis Warnier, starring Joseph Fiennes as a lost anthropologist, was partly a South African co-production but the film was quickly derided in the press as a musty, irrelevant costume drama.

But the jury must have wanted to give a break to relatively unknown filmmakers and actors coming from a country that’s rapidly becoming a hot commodity. At the latest Oscar-bash, the first ever South-African film Yesterday was nominated for Best Foreign Film. This seems to be a year of ‘first evers’ for the South African industry. The rising profile of South African films is due to a growing number of international co-productions, markets and the development of young filmmakers and writers.

South Africa’s status as a talent incubator was also made clear at the festival’s Talent Campus, where two thousand young filmmakers from all over the world are flown in to meet each other and to follow seminars by the likes of cinematographer Christopher Doyle, set designer Dante Ferretti and director Stephen Frears. During a seminar on screenwriting and cultural identity, a South-African producer stressed the importance of teaching young kids Western technical skills, whilst at the same time not forgetting their own tradition of oral storytelling.

Red carpet antidote

Not only did the Berlinale show promising signs from the Southern Hemisphere, its jam-packed programme also contained goodies from the East and West. The competition may be partly driven by the desire to please Hollywood studios and pack out the cinemas – hence the inclusion of Will Smith vehicle Hitch – but other festival programmes like the Panorama and the Forum offer cinephiles plenty of scope for globetrotting without leaving their cinema seats. While curious passers-by and autograph hunters clutter around back-entrances at the Potsdamer Platz, those in the know fill up the theatres in search of more esoteric fare.

Probably the best red carpet antidote is offered by films from Eastern Europe, whose messages are usually highly critical of anything to do with mass consumerism. Even the youngest filmmakers seem to have inherited the anti-capitalism stance of their elders, and perhaps with good reason. The screening of Alexander Shapiro’s The Guidebook (Putevoditel) was filled with top-notch festival heads, distributors and other global connoisseurs.

Sadly this hallucinatory portrait of life in the Ukraine capital failed to charm many of them, and so when the film ended the theatre was practically empty. Young Alex Shapiro is single-handedly resurrecting the moribund Ukrainian industry by cranking out two features in a row. The first one Tsikuta (2002) was a fast-paced fictional portrait of Kiev’s glue sniffing street kids. Putevoditel uses the same frantic cinematography to portray the soul of the city – much of which revolves around after-parties, drugs, real estate prices and inertia of Chekhovian proportions. Shapiro’s stylistic and narrative boldness was a refreshing change from the turgid and noble ‘message’ films that dominated the competition, and the emphasis on storytelling alone in films made by his Western contemporaries.

Another Eastern gem is Rascal (Pakostnik) by the Russian Tania Detkina, a debutante blessed with an equal dose of confidence. Her black-and-white feature takes place in one of those unending Russian forests where some people try to make the most of life and others try to stop them from doing exactly that – people with too much time (and explosives) on their hands. When the young Pashka gets fired from his watchman-job, he sticks around to be close to his ex-boss’s wife. This inevitably gets him into trouble and a plot involving stuffed teddy bears, gasoline, adultery and human slavery kicks in. But the word ‘plot’ is to be used lightly here, since Detkina doesn’t follow the rules and gives her characters words and actions as she sees fit – unhindered by any heavy-handed screenwriting dogmas or tight-lipped script editors. This is auteur cinema at its most vibrant and least self-conscious – and although it’s not a master piece, there is something to be said for this kind of visual exuberance in a time when everyone’s an expert and even distributors want to have a say in the filmmaking process.

American indie cinema gets a similar shot in the arm with On the Outs by Lori Silverbush and Michael Skolnik. The latter made his mark at the Tribeca Film Festival two years ago with his impressive basketball documentary Hooked, baring the emotional scars of an almost-star player, whose own worst enemy turned out to be himself. This time he uses fiction to show the life of three young women in a Jersey ghetto without the usual self-improvement glibness or violent blaxploitation. Silverbush and Skolnik have based their film on years’ worth of research in jails and workshops, giving the film a realistic tone not seen since Nick Gomez’ Laws of Gravity – a Berlinale hit nine years ago. The film’s storytelling follows its own pace and is devoid of the American penchant for moralism and strugglers who come out on top. Skolnik previously showed that the dark side of the American dream is far more interesting and he confirms that again with this impressive feature.

Hot and cold

Festival director Dieter Kosslick has dragged German cinema into the limelight in the past years and deservedly so. Two of its best exponents premiered their latest films. The security at the press screening for Christian Petzold’s Gespenster (Ghosts) was so tight that all five thousand journalists in the huge Berlinale Palast were forced with unusual zeal by the ushers to check in their bags. It’s not unusual for security staff to search journo’s bags at high risk screenings, but this was taking things to a new Teutonic level.

Petzold has made an art form out of showing that controlling coldness. He uses tight, disciplined cinematography and a fondness for blue, green and other institutional colours to convey the mental straightjackets that his characters are in, either by society or by themselves. Gespenster is the story of Nina (played by the up-and-coming German actress Julia Hummer) who lives in an institution. A petty criminal/wild child preys on her neediness and makes her believe she has a new friend. When a French woman thinks Nina is her kidnapped daughter, that relationship is put to the test. The film doesn’t have the heart stopping thriller elements of Petzold’s other films such as Die Innere Sicherheit and Toter Mann, but he does leave you wondering about each next turn because each character is superbly multifaceted and unpredictable.

By contrast Andreas Dresen has made a career out of showing (former) East Germans dealing with the old and the new world with a great deal of gritted teeth and humour. His third feature Halbe Treppe picked up a Silver Bear in 2001, so it’s surprising that his latest, Willenbrock, is shown in the Panorama sidebar and not the competition. Perhaps because Dresen’s actor Axel Prahl lacks the red carpet appeal of Will Smith, although the two actors share a sense of humour that they don’t employ at the cost of others. Both have a high teddy bear quotient, which is why second-hand car dealer Willenbrock has no trouble juggling two mistresses besides his marriage. He’s doing well for himself in the post-communist world, adapting to Western capitalism. Unfortunately, he is targeted by capitalists from the East. Brutal attacks by Russian thugs make him rethink his life and marriage, but without losing his extraordinary flair.

Again, Berlin is proving to be a pivotal player in the East-West dynamic, although the grapevine is warming up with Chinese whispers from the African continent.