Risky Movies and Prison Screenings? How a German Festival Bucked the System

Courtesy of Oldenburg Film Festival
'Junk Head'

The Oldenburg Film Festival, running Sept. 13-17, spotlights projects that are "driven by passion, not the market," along with hosting screenings for maximum-security inmates that are highly sought-after slots for filmmakers.

Torsten Neumann has a thing for the underdog. When he co-founded the Oldenburg Film Festival 24 years ago, Neumann wanted to create a showcase, and an industry platform, for the kind of movie that gets made against the odds.

"The film that takes risks, that's driven by passion, not by the market," he says.

While most second-tier festivals content themselves with a selection of the year's greatest hits from Cannes, Venice and Toronto, Oldenburg, free from the pressure of studio politics, has put the focus on discovery. It's a lineup that is carefully curated, not market-tested.

"It's become extremely hard for independent distributors to take chances on films that don't have a built-in audience," says Neumann. "We want to give those films a platform, especially for smaller distributors who can really use us to generate attention."

American cinema is a lifelong obsession for Neumann, and Oldenburg has been a haven for U.S. genre fare since the beginning. This year, the festival features four world premieres from American directors: A Violent Man, a mixed martial arts drama from writer-director Matthew Berkowitz that stars NFL running back turned actor Thomas Q. Jones (Straight Outta Compton); Dan Mirvish's dark comedy Bernard and Huey, featuring Anchorman's David Koechner; Crowhurst, a biopic from Simon Rumley about Donald Crowhurst, the British businessman who died in 1969 while trying to sail around the world solo (Rumley's thriller Fashionista, a hit on this year's genre-focused Fantastic Fest circuit, also will be making its German premiere at Oldenburg); and Quest, an inspirational tale from Santiago Rizzo, based on the teacher and mentor who saved the first-time director from a life of crime.

Quest has been picked for Oldenburg's sought-after prison slot. It will be screened Sept. 16 for a group of festival attendees and inmates at the city's maximum security prison, JVA Oldenburg. The prison screenings, far from being a gimmick, are an integral part of the festival: In 2016, Amanda Plummer attended a screening of Pulp Fiction to a packed (and yes, captive) audience.

And, like every year, Oldenburg's 2017 lineup includes several passion projects that embody the term "independent" — perhaps none more than Junk Head, the Japanese sci-fi film that will have its European premiere. Artist Takahide Hori spent seven years meticulously designing every aspect of the stop-motion feature that is centered on a postapocalyptic battle between humans and clones. He wrote, directed, shot and scored Junk Head, did the animation and provided all the voice work. Hori's name is, literally, the only one on the credits. "He takes the concept of indie to a whole other level," says Neumann.

While Oldenburg remains primarily a "pure" film festival, with no official market or industry screenings, Neumann last year introduced an industry-friendly element, the Matchbox co-production lounge, to bring together experienced filmmakers and emerging talents to help make impossible projects happen.

This year's slate of films seeking backing includes Fake Oxygen, a modern-day retelling of Madame Bovary from Dunja Kusturica, the daughter of two-time Palme d'Or winner Emir Kusturica, and The Seventh Magpie, a new project from 1970s directing legend Nicolas Roeg (Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth).

Says Neumann, "We want to provide a place where these passion projects can be made and seen, hopefully at a future Oldenberg festival."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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