Aruba's first film festival a breezy, relaxed affair

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ARUBA -- The tiki torches at the opening-night party were just starting to peter out when a tipsy journalist posed the question everyone was thinking: Who would dare launch a film festival in this economy?

It's a reasonable query. Given the recent demise of fests from Jackson Hole to Las Vegas and the scaling back of even well-known perennials like Tribeca, the prospects for an Aruba International Film Festival might seem as weak as one of Joran van der Sloot's alibis.

But a film festival actually happened last month on this windswept 75-square-mile island in the Dutch Caribbean, an occurrence that most people told Jonathan Vieira, the 29-year-old Aruban musician who co-founded the fest with line producer Giuseppe Cioccarelli, never would happen.

" 'Aruba' and 'film' were not words you heard together," Vieira said between libations at one of the festival's beachfront receptions. "Now they are."

Well, not quite, at least not on the serious film circuit. But the story of how Vieira and Cioccarelli pulled off a real festival in a far-flung locale is instructive for those wondering about the future of the hundreds of regional fests as sponsors have fled, film lovers are traveling less often and fewer fest movies are getting made.

Vieira, born and raised on the remote, 100,000-person island, said he and Cioccarelli, who met through Vieira's mother, began tossing around the idea of an event that would draw tourists and international media as well as locals. After all, the Bahamas, that lush rival to the north, has had a festival for six years, even luring the elusive Johnny Depp to its most recent installment in December.

Vieira didn't know any movie stars, but he had a U.S. film degree and had done some TV production work. More importantly, his grandfather was a member of the Aruban parliament, and his family, which made some money in the import/export business, is well known on the island.

That and some work on an Aruba ad campaign got Vieira a meeting last summer with the country's powerful minister of tourism. After some initial confusion -- the minister thought production tax breaks and a film festival were the same thing -- the government agreed to pay half the R&D costs to pursue an experienced festival director. Vieira funded the rest of his effort with money from his family's beachfront restaurant, the Old Man and the Sea.

Turned out that Cioccarelli's wife, a former publicist, had a connection to Claudio Masenza, a veteran of festivals in Venice and Rome. Masenza also happened to be friends with Richard Gere -- just the kind of potential celebrity honoree necessary to generate buzz for a nascent film event.

From there, Vieira, a charismatic operator who would feel at home at a Hollywood talent agency, took off for Rome.

"I basically leveraged Claudio, telling him the festival was already set up when it was far from being set up," Vieira recalled on a typically humid Aruban afternoon. "In the meantime, I went back to the government, and I said I have a director who is willing to commit and he knows Richard Gere, but I need you to commit."

It was a page from an old producer's handbook, and it worked. "I just had to make sure that those two people didn't talk to each other," Vieira joked.

With Masenza in and the Aruban government footing half of the festival's $1.1 million budget, the co-founders scored another 25% from the island's hotel association -- Vieira again leveraged the tourism board's involvement before it was official -- and scraped together the rest from the airport and a few other sponsors. Vieira knew the son of the owner of the island's surprisingly modern multiplexes, one of which was turned over to the festival free of charge (about a $150,000 value).

Then Masenza made the call. "All Richard said was, 'What do you need?' " the wry Italian recalled.

The budget allowed the festival to begin hiring staff, securing films, engaging Rogers & Cowan to coordinate details and bring in international journalists and such talent as Patricia Clarkson (for Ruba Nadda's "Cairo Time") and Guillermo Arriaga (for "The Burning Plain").

The result was a breezy (literally -- the warm wind never stops), relaxed program heavy on Italian films (not surprising, given Masenza's background) with a touch of Bollywood ("3 Idiots") and American indies (Matt Bissonnette's "Passenger Side" and the Duplass brothers' "Cyrus"). The premieres and a conversation series were well-attended, but the afternoon screenings were less popular, understandable because they took place mostly in a strip mall across the street from crystal blue water and stark white beaches.

Considering the financial state of the world, launching any kind of film event on a remote island must be considered a success. And bringing new visitors and a touch of film culture to an island that typically sees only Hollywood blockbusters has the government (and Vieira) excited about next year's event.

"Aruba is like a really spoiled kid that has every available toy but is not really executing anything," said Vieira, who is plotting a five-year plan for the festival. "We have everything we need, but nobody is connecting the dots. Maybe I'm the dot connector."
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