Julius Caesar, Angelina Jolie and Me - A Week at the Berlinale

21/02/2012 22:39 GMT | Updated 22/04/2012 10:12 BST

If a week is a long time in politics then a week at a film festival is an eternity where you not only travel across time and space but into the minds of a female victim of war, a confused second generation British-Egyptian teenager and a reluctant revolutionary. Taking in five films a day can leave the imagination bewildered and becalmed, ravaged and enlightened. What follows are some of the highlights and observations from one of the world's most expansive and consequential film festivals.

In his introduction to the catalogue, festival director Dieter Kosslick drew attention to the fact that it was one year since the Arab Spring; something that was addressed by a number of films across the programme. He also observed the urgent need to ensure freedom of expression for artists - another theme close to the festival's heart. These two strands found outstanding manifestation in two documentaries: The Reluctant Revolutionary and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. This year it felt like truth was much stranger and more emotionally engaging than fiction: documentaries were getting to the heart of the matter more directly than drama.

Sean McAllister's The Reluctant Revolutionary follows Kais, a tourist guide in Yemen, as the revolution unfolds. His work is already perilous and drying up because of the Taliban and when a protest camp sets up in 'Change Square' in Yemen's capital Sana'a, Kais is non-committal partly feeling this is bad for tourism. Over time he begins to get involved and engaged. Film-maker McAllister is either a fool or brave or possibly both because he is obviously the only foreigner around, wondering in a volatile environment with secret police mingling amongst the crowds of protesters. What he captures is extraordinary with access conventional media flinch from. When the state troops shoot into the crowds the camera follows Kais into the makeshift hospitals. The scenes are devastating. But the mood of change and resilience is evident as it is in the charming reluctant revolutionary Kais.

The art of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is inextricable from his politics and for a Chinese artist, that can be life - or at least liberty - threatening. Ai Weiwei's work is not confrontation for the sake of it but draws attention to the state's wilful dismissal of its own people. This is most apparent in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake where the state never issued the names or numbers of fatalities, many of whom were children because of ill-built schools. Ai Weiwei and colleagues documented and published the names of nearly 5500. Later he would make an installation in the front of an art gallery with 5500 school bags. In this documentary, you get a real sense of the cat and mouse confrontation between artist and state until finally, he is arrested. Released after 81 days, he is fined $2.5m, banned from meeting people and using the internet. It is moving to see ordinary Chinese people leave money at Ai Weiwei's door - the power of the artist evident.

The artist himself could not be at the screening having restricted movements imposed on him, however he managed to arrange for fortune cookies to be handed out to each audience member, which contained a unique message from Ai Weiwei to share. Mine read "You can delete the words but you cannot delete the facts" and was immediately sent into the Twittersphere.

Where fiction really did matter, was somewhat surprisingly in the hands of the glamorous Hollywood star Angelina Jolie. The red carpet razzmatazz was very much in evidence when the "Brangelina" road show hit town to the extent of preventing me from getting into Angelina's own film as she had the paparazzi captivated. However she does not pull her punches in her film In the Land of Blood and Honey, which attempts to depict the horrors, inflicted on women in the 1990s Bosnian war. Whilst it dramatically slides towards melodrama at the end, the first half of the film brings us face to face with the horrific abuses of Muslim women in the conflict.

Similarly, Philippines director Brillante Mendoza's Captive started off with a bang, throwing Isabelle Huppert as well as the audience into the hands of terrorists in a dramatisation of the 2001 incident when Muslim terrorist group Abu Sayyaf took a number people hostage from a Filipino island resort. The first hour is compelling, disorientating filmmaking giving a glimpse into the ordeal. However, the film flags in the second half. I later discovered that the director had intended the film to be three hours. Longer would have actually been better, allowing the film to more fully explore the relationship between captors and captives, the tedium and terror of over a year in captivity.

Documentary and fiction were satisfyingly brought together in the Taviani Brothers' Caesar Must Die, a compelling testament to the transformative power of art that went on to win the top prize at this year's festival. Prisoners in an Italian jail perform Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and through the process realise and understand more about their own condition. One prisoner observes: "ever since I discovered art this cell has truly become a prison." The 80-year-old veterans Taviani Brothers effortlessly merge drama, fiction, documentary and real life. Through immersion in the drama of Shakespeare, the prisoners discover more about themselves and their world. Similarly we, Berlinale festivalgoers, immerse ourselves in films and discover more about our world and ourselves.