A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin." Henry Louis Mencken's aphorism springs to mind because there are times when belief in one's open-mindedness is challenged. This week, Dieter Kosslick, Berlinale festival director offered a flower-sniffing test par excellence.

The critics pretty much universally panned the Jennifer Lopez and Antonio Banderas drama Bordertown, which found itself on the Berlin competition list.

Kosslick rather gallantly accepted responsibility for the inclusion of the film in which, Screen's reviewer rather caustically suggested, the leads were fighting to see who could be more unconvincing. But he said critics should look beyond their poisoned pens.

"A journalist asked me whether I had been hurt by the criticism and I said, 'What are you talking about when 400 women have been raped and mutilated at the border of Mexico'' Nobody had paid attention to this crime, but if we can stop one more single person being murdered, I would still show this film if Antonio Banderas and J-Lo were talking and there was nothing on the screen."

The cynic, of course, will ask whether a poor but well-meaning film without two big stars would find itself similarly accommodated. Kosslick also leaves himself open to accusations of hypocrisy because of his previous strongly worded attack on Rome and Dubai for pandering to Hollywood with open cheque books.

But he at least raises an interesting point: can a bad film help a good cause' More specifically, will the message of Bordertown be enhanced or overshadowed by the inevitable attention on J-Lo.

Films have made an impact on public debate in recent years. The rise of the feature documentary suggests an appetite among some demographic groups to have their ideas challenged. Recent films, such as Blood Diamond, have been able to raise awareness of political issues without scaling the heights of artistic achievement.

The argument is whether a film festival - particularly one with the history and stature of Berlin - has a responsibility to promote cinema as an art form that can, at its best, engage the viewer on a personal level with issues, taking them out of the abstract political sphere and into the realm of human feeling.

Should it not be pushing that process of individual engagement that oddly works best in the public theatre' Film is at its most powerful when it puts us at the centre of the action: a 30-feet-high screen seems the perfect way to bring an issue down to earth.

This weekend's Oscar contenders include Pan's Labyrinth, The Queen, The Last King Of Scotland, Letters From Iwo Jima and The Lives Of Others. In each case, there is a sense of common humanity that manages to transcend language.

Surely, the lesson of international cinema in recent years is that it works at two poles: at the level of grand spectacle and at the deeply personal level, bringing out the universal humanity from a specific sense of place.

To be fair, there was plenty of that at Berlin: Andre Techine's Witnesses, for example, brilliantly pulled us into the 1980s emergence of Aids as a global health issue, allowing us to see the human issues of a period dominated by frightening statistics. German cinema's recent renaissance has been built on such thinking. And Golden Bear-winner Tuya's Marriage reflects what we might call a cinematic soul.

The argument is that if we believe cinema has the power to change minds, then festivals ought to be promoting film itself - the medium as much as the message.

It is difficult not to feel that Bordertown improved the red carpet at the expense of the big screen.

Or to paraphrase that other, more famous, quotation about cynics from Oscar Wilde: do the big festivals know the value of celebrity endorsement but not the price in reputations that really matter to European film'