Berlin - Even before Will Smith caused screams in Potsdamer Platz, Berlin's sprightly festival chief declared Africa would be a special focus. As Dieter Kosslick skipped from ushering Topher Grace up the red carpet to whipping up a pasta dish for the TV cameras, he took time to highlight Africa's presence at the 55th Berlinale.
Not one but two Rwandan genocide films - Hotel Rwanda and Raoul Peck 's staggering HBO drama Sometimes In April . A daylong series of panels on marketing African films. The festival even opened with Joseph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas plunging into the jungle in Régis Wargnier 's throwback epic Man To Man . OK, that one was a bad move.
Reactions to Kosslick's Africa announcement ranged from skepticism to "where do I get a ticket to the Hitch party?" No one expected the Golden Bear to go to an African film (see sidebar for other Berlin prize winners).
But then somebody on the jury fell in love with Pauline Malefane . Or maybe it was everybody. She stars in U-Carmen eKhayelitsha , a rousing South African musical that throws Bizet's opera into the dust and lust of a Cape Town township. Malefane, who growls and warbles her way through Bizet - singing in Xhosa no less - is an ample woman with a voice to match.
Director Marc Dornford-May first mounted this African Carmen on stage, and the film version shows a depth that goes beyond mere "what if?" It integrates local rhythms, movement and colour, and draws on the already strong tradition of opera singing in South Africa, whose performers have long run from rank amateur to global professional.
There was a Senegalese adaptation called Karmen Gei only four years ago, but this South African version far surpasses that. It harks back more to Carmen Jones, the stage musical and movie that brought Bizet to Harlem.
I suspect U-Carmen eKhayelitsha took top prize at the Berlinale not because Dieter Kosslick said so, but because the jury found in it the perfect balance of real-world grit and movie magic.
Most of this year's Competition section was relentless. In addition to the two Rwandan genocide films, there was a Holocaust drama ( Marc Rothemund 's Sophie Scholl - The Final Days ), a Palestinian suicide-bomber drama ( Hany Abu-Assad 's Paradise Now ), a drama about Japanese Emperor Hirohito on the eve of surrender ( Aleksandr Sokurov 's characteristically murky The Sun ) and a drama about a Danish dad arrested for sexually abusing his daughter ( Jacob Thuesen 's Accused ). As far as the high-profile films went, it was go dark or go home.
By comparison, The Wayward Cloud , from Taiwan's pixie provocateur Tsai Ming Liang , played like slapstick. The fact that it's about a listless porn performer enduring a Taipei drought and that it features the most disturbing ending I saw all festival can"t take away from its perverse glee. Perverse glee was nowhere else to be found in Berlin.
Well, except maybe from George Michael .
The eternally troubled pop star made an appearance mid-festival to support a new documentary about him, George Michael: A Different Story . (In the future, all big stars will have their own documentaries, magazines and felony trials.)
But Michael had come to say goodbye.
"I just thought it was important," he said at his press conference, "to explain myself before I disappear."
In case you"re wondering, he's going for two reasons.
"One is I have never been particularly good at being a celebrity. I don"t suit the job. It hasn"t been good for my mental health.
"The other reason is my own genre is dead really." He blames the death of pop on the "corporate bastards" who don"t know a hit when they hear it.
This year's Berlinale did find a place for the plaints of chokingly rich global megastars, but it was off to the side someplace. George Michael came and went. Will Smith came and went, but not before wrapping his arms around a journalist from Kosovo and giving her the smooch of a lifetime.
Even Catherine Deneuve and Daniel Day-Lewis , icons who pretty much define the range of movie stardom, felt surprisingly down to earth in this year's serious-minded context. Deneuve chatted about love and the culinary reputation of Gerard Dépardieu in an intimate press gathering. Day-Lewis appeared, bushy-bearded and way too polite, to reflect on idealism in his work and life.
"You have to play with that balance between faith and despair," he said in his impeccable English. "Idealism without doubt is what's dangerous. Idealism in itself is the food of life."
And so it was. This was a festival of idealism about cinema, a festival hoping that declaring a focus on Africa could actually made a difference in the world. During the last 10 days, 17,000 accredited guests from 120 countries rushed through the cinemas and smoking bars of Potsdamer Platz. Another 400,000 bought tickets. Most of us walked that line between faith and despair, even if the stakes were only the movie up onscreen at the time.
Next week I"ll be in West Africa, reporting from the Pan-African Film Festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. There, at least, you can be sure of an African focus.
Golden Bear U-Carmen eKhayelitsha , by Marc Dornford-May, South Africa
Silver Bear, Jury Grand Prix Peacock by Gu Changwei, China
Silver Bear, Best Director Marc Rothemund for Sophie Scholl - The Final Days, Germany
Silver Bear, Best Actress Julia Jentsch in Sophie Scholl - The Final Days
Silver Bear, Best Actor Lou Taylor Pucci in Thumbsucker by Mike Mills, U.S.
Silver Bear for an outstanding artistic contribution Tsai Ming Liang , scriptwriter, The Wayward Cloud, Taiwan
Silver Bear for Best Film Music Alexandre Desplat for The Beat That My Heart Skipped by Jacques Audiard, France
AGICOA's Blue Angel Award for best European film Paradise Now by Hany Abu-Assad, Palestine
Alfred Bauer Prize for a film which succeeds in taking the art of film in a new direction The Wayward Cloud by Tsai Ming Liang