Commentary: Libertas Film Festival filled with local color

Croatian fest fails to draw local attendees, however

DUBROVNIK, Croatia -- The fourth edition of the Libertas Film Festival in the Croatian city of Dubrovnik was the model of a relaxed cinema event with plenty of local color -- just not enough local attendees.

Getting the denizens of this ancient and alluring Adriatic port to show up for the mix of international films on offer is proving an uphill task in a city where cinema going, particularly during daytime, is not high on the list of local leisure pursuits.

That's a pity, because festival programmer Stjepan Hundic put together a solid and varied selection of titles for the six-day event that wrapped earlier this month, ranging from firmly auteur films to horror to a handful of rarities from Cuba.

One of the event's highlights was the outdoor screenings held within the ancient stone walls of the fortified city, with bats swooping overhead and stray cats slinking under seats.

The opening film, the affectionate Gypsy romp "Roming," from Czech helmer Jiri Vejdelek, was shown in this setting. The film was disrupted when an electrical storm caused a temporary power outage and a subsequent shower sent half the audience scurrying for cover. The die-hards sat through the rain using seat cushions as umbrellas to enjoy the remaining reels.

In addition to a selection of midnight horror films, the outdoor screenings included "Om Shanti Om" with Indian superstar Shah Rukh Khan, the first time a Bollywood picture has unspooled in the Croatian city. Sadly, that too was only sparsely attended.

With a population of about 40,000, Dubrovnik has only one remaining indoor movie theater, a decline partly attributable of the growth in DVD, with pirate copies readily and cheaply available. With its stated aim to stimulate interest in independent filmmaking, the Libertas Festival comprised about 30 feature-length films shown in venues throughout the city.

Organizers know locals won't turn up for morning screenings, so nothing is programmed before 5 p.m. But even then, audience numbers for the "early" shows often were in single digits.

Later screenings enjoyed healthier crowds, especially those with talent attached. Director Ira Sachs and his leading man Chris Cooper drew a good though far from capacity crowd for a screening of the retro romantic thriller "Married Life," which was followed by a Q&A. "You have to build audiences for these kind of events," Sachs conceded.

"For the size of this place, I hope they don't try and make the festival too big. A small jewel is sometimes more lovely than the Hope Diamond," said Cooper, who spent a day with the local media talking up his film.

The Libertas Festival, which gained city hall backing after the demise of the short-lived Dubrovnik International Film Festival, has a minuscule budget of about $600,000, but the event's small but resourceful team makes that cash go a long way. The walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, provided some dazzling settings for festival events, notably a candlelit dinner for about 40 guests on the top of St. Ivan's fortress to mark a lifetime achievement award for local screen and stage actor Mustafa Nadarevic.

"I think it's been the best edition so far," festival director Mia Pecinas said. "The people here have started reacting better. Dubrovnik is not really a film city; they are more oriented to theater and classical music. Our goal is education -- bringing independent films that they wouldn't see elsewhere. We've seen definite progress. People used to go mainly to the horror films, now they are trying indie stuff."

The Libertas award for best feature went to German helmer Fatih Akin's "The Edge of Heaven," while the documentary nod was scooped up by "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" from U.S. director Marina Zenovich, who was on hand to collect her award.

Attendees at the fourth edition were unanimous about Dubrovnik's charms and the welcome extended by fest organizers. The event will remain strictly low-key on the networking front -- at least until someone invents the waterproof business card. Taking regular dips in the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic is all part of the day, and organizers even scheduled a boat trip to a nearby island where festival goers got to know one another over lunch and a swim.

"If I had the chance to come back to one festival next year, it would be Dubrovnik," said Steve Rothenberg, head of domestic distribution at Lionsgate Entertainment, who was on the jury.
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