BERLIN - “Are these real films?” a colleague asked, his tone pitched halfway between irony and incredulity, as he contemplated a potential Berlinale marathon of such appetizingly titled sidebar entries as “The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears” and “The Woman in the Septic Tank.” “Or are audiences simply being punked by festival programmers, and no one can stay awake long enough past the opening credits to realize?”

We were killing time in the languidly paced press ticket queue, waiting to be told, rather curtly, that seats for Sundance critical hit “Keep the Lights On” were no longer available – with the wisdom that comes of experience and persistent disappointment, the aforementioned colleague already had his mind on plan B. More subtly coded but even more bewildering than the press-badge caste system at Cannes, the press screening schedule at Berlin is so riddled with conditions and restrictions (access levels to journalists vary from strand to strand, hour to hour, cinema to cinema) that planning a day’s viewing is scarcely less work than filing a day’s tax returns.

Two days in, I’m already fretting over films missed and impending timetable clashes – and that’s before I get to my concerns over what I have actually seen. Three Competition entries in, meanwhile, revelations are as thin on the ground as broadly recognizable names: even by Berlinale standards, it’s been an austere start to the festival. That’s what you get for kicking off delegate screenings with a three-hour-plus Werner Herzog death-row documentary, I guess. (I arrived in town too late to catch it, but word is wearily positive.)

Austerity and mortality were very much on the mind of this morning’s Competition entry, “Aujourd’hui (Today)” – a woozily allegorical life-in-a-day drama from Francophone writer-director Alain Gomis that looks likely to wind up in the upper tier of this year’s Golden Bear hopefuls on its considerable tactile merits alone.

The film’s biggest hook for African cinema laymen may be the unlikely presence of American hip-hop poet Saul Williams (best known on screen for headlining the more tailored US indie “Slam”) in the inscrutable lead role of Satche, a mild-mannered Dakar everyman inexplicably given one day to live at the film’s outset. He’s an appropriately grave, dolorous presence, handed little dialogue that might expose his incongruous accent – though there’s little that a quick blast of “NiggyTardust” wouldn’t fix in the film’s dawdling, metaphorically over-inscribed second half – but a reflective vessel for Gomis’s keener communal concerns.

"Aujourd'hui" opens with an exquisitely protracted sequence of mass mourning, disembodied wails bouncing off silently stricken faces; just as we wonder whose funeral we’ve walked in on, we learn that it’s something of a living wake for Satche, whose death is announced and accepted with no protest, but much ceremony. As in much African folklore, group sentiment stands in for individual experience, and we wind up learning far more about the man from the variously affectionate and wary responses of those he visits on his mortal victory lap – from a Cheshire-cat uncle to an embittered old flame – around a sun-beaten skeleton city that seems to be on borrowed time itself.

The chronologically elastic outcome will inspire debate, while a brief segue into straight-to-camera politicking is ungainly and arrhythmic, but it’s quite literally the local color that compensates in this sensual essay on neo-colonial placelessness: Christelle Fournier’s camera drinks in the brick-dust landscape with a patiently journalistic eye for life at the edges, its yawing wide angles exposing both the social clutter and ghostly absences in Satche’s unhurried final hours.

Would that Tony Gatlif, another French-African auteur troubled by themes of personal and political community, had half as much faith in his imagery as Gomis does. His latest we-are-the-world effort, Panorama entry The Outraged (Indignados),” follows the stoic misadventures of wide-eyed, wild-haired immigrant urchin Betty (Isabel Vendrell Cortes) as she gets passed from one unwelcoming European shore to another, her victimized voicelessness a handicap the film seemingly never pauses to considers its own complicity in.

Proceedings open with a languorous tracking shot of immigrants’ sodden shoes washed up on a Mediterranean beach – a symbolic stroke that scarcely affords the viewer time to contemplate its tasteful obviousness before the director begins tagging his screen with any number of thuddingly self-evident slogans, all idly pinched from Stephane Hessel, to drive home his scantly researched point. “The earth is not a commodity!” a day-glo title card helpfully informs us. “Violence is not a solution!”

Quite true, but neither is this narrow, Occupy-era filmmaking, which smugly traces longstanding social iniquities without offering any provocative arguments for change. You’d call this attractively mounted visual essay designer socialism if Benetton still qualified as designer: by the time the single word ‘Espoir’ (hope) pops up on screen in a stencilled typeface that makes it all but indistinguishable from the Esprit label, you have to wonder if Gatlif, whose 2004 Cannes winner “Exiles” covered this worthy thematic ground with far more visual and narrative jazz, is in on the joke.

The day’s second Competition film, Frederic Videau’s grimly compelling but enervatingly formless child-captor study Coming Home has its own plucked-from-the-headlines topicality: an opening title card may staunchly insist on the upcoming narrative’s fictitiousness, but it’s impossible to imagine that the horrific story of Natascha Kampusch was far from Videau’s mind when he conceived his time-scrambled script about an 18 year-old girl, Gaelle (the impressively hard-eyed Agathe Bonitzer), unhappily adjusting to liberty after a decade spent in the clutches of a weak-willed kidnapper (Reda Kateb).

It’s the film’s own bad luck to arrive on the heels of Markus Schleinzer’s much-admired 2011 Cannes entry “Michael,” which covered superficially similar ground with more technical panache; “Coming Home” can’t help but feel a superfluous addition, even if it’s more compassionately performed and generously scaled than Schleinzer’s disingenuously tricksy exercise. Indeed, in attempting to give equal consideration to both violator and victim, to both trauma and recovery, Videau’s film bites off a little more than it can chew, its non-linear structure attempting to paper over crucial leaps in emotional logic, imagining moral ambiguities where the lines of right and wrong are exactly as they appear on paper.

I wish more of "Coming Home" centered on the bruised, loving, ultimately irreparable relationship between Gaelle and her shell of a mother (a superb Noemie Lvovsky), and I wish precisely none of it featured the bizarrely peppy synth score that Videau presumably opted for on a dare. Most of all, I wish two evidently skilled filmmakers hadn’t landed on this subject matter in the space of a year, but that says rather more about the world they live in than the films they’ve made.

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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