At the Berlinale, Gritty Films With a Conscience

In "The Yes Men Fix The World," a man posing as an Exxon executive shows up at an oil conference in Calgary and unveils the company's breakthrough energy source: Vivoleum, a new biofuel product made of human bodies. He also dupes 300 million viewers when he poses as a Dow Chemical representative on TV, announcing that his company will clean up India's toxic Bhopal plant and compensate all of the victims. Before he's through, the eco-stuntman interviews scientists and families in New Orleans, where he dresses as a U.S. government spokesperson and promises—to a believing Mayor Ray Nagin, among others—to reopen public housing and force Exxon to pay $12 billion to restore the region's wetlands.

The film, showing this week at the Berlin International Film Festival (Feb. 5–15), is part journalism, part mockumentary, influenced in turn by Michael Moore, "Borat" and television newsmagazines like "20/20." Tackling the themes of climate change, corporate greed and wealth disparity—on a budget of just over $1 million—it shines with a raw wit and originality that have inspired e-mails from students who saw the premiere at Sundance and are eager to fix the world. "This is a moment when everyone is reconsidering what we've been doing for the last 35 years," says Mike Bonnano, who codirected the film with Andy Bichlbaum and Kurt Engfehr, the editor for Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9/11." "If we use this as a learning moment and change the way we do business, we can actually prevent the end of the world as we know it."

In a year that already feels like the end of the world as some know it, the Berlin film festival is rife with films like "The Yes Men" that capture the most urgent issues of the day: the environment, social unrest, economic insecurity. Even for the Berlinale, which is known for embracing the political and the avant-garde, this year's lineup is exceptionally gritty and provocative. Some see the trend as a reaction to the widespread excesses of the film industry, and to the shakeout looming among competing studios. Independent films enjoyed booming art-house runs in the 1980s, but were co-opted by the big studios in the 1990s. Now, with production houses as well established as Universal and Focus feeling the squeeze, the doors may be opening for less experienced, more cost-conscious filmmakers, sparking a return to cinema's more daring roots. "We see a new development toward radical, fearless types of filmmaking," says Wieland Speck, director of the festival's Panorama section, which represents the riskier, lower-budget productions—the films that grim economic times have put back into vogue. "It's becoming juicier again."

Heavy-hitting documentaries dominate the festival. Brazilian director José Padilha, who won last year's Golden Bear with "The Elite Squad," returns with an edgy exposé on hunger called "Garapa," filmed in black and white in northeastern Brazil using a handheld camera and no music. Meanwhile, Spaniard Chema Rodríguez digs into South America's human-smuggling trade with "Coyote," and the Canadian John Greyson shows the documentary opera "Fig Trees," blending real footage from the lives of two AIDS activists with singing actors who tell their story about the fight to acquire medicine for their communities. "Pills are about dollars and politics, [and] AIDS treatment, especially in developing countries, shouldn't be held hostage by the finance crisis as governments start to trim budgets," says Greyson. Like most of the filmmakers, he shot his movie before the credit crunch hit last year, making his message about economic disparity presciently astute.

A number of films starkly address the global economic crisis. Matthew Hysell's "Marin Blue" is set amid the ruins of the real-estate meltdown in suburban Los Angeles, where people's temporary housing reflects lives put on hold. British directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, who won the 2006 Silver Bear for best direction for "The Road to Guantánamo," turn the camera lens on the global cost of free-market capitalism in "The Shock Doctrine," based on Naomi Klein's recent book of the same name. "It's key that we start talking not only about the way forward, but looking at the past to try and explain what's gone wrong," says Whitecross.

That sentiment could apply just as easily to the film industry as to the economy. "Socially conscious cinema is going to gain from this crisis as well," says Rie Rasmussen, the 30-year-old Dane who wrote, directed and starred in "Human Zoo," a feature film about a Serbian woman who survives the war in the Balkans only to wind up struggling to find love in Marseilles. Judging from the Berlinale, it already has.