Silver-haired, still independent

On 25th anni, Munich fest goes against grain again

As film festivals around the world go corporate, bending to demands to accommodate big studios and big-name sponsors, at least one prominent fest appears to have resisted the pull.

The Munich International Film Festival turned 25 this year and, despite being Germany's second-largest film festival, it remains as independent and cinematically minded as ever.

"We have no intention of changing. We don't want a market, we don't want anyone else telling us what films we screen," festival director Andreas Strohl said in an interview. "There has been a lot of pressure on us to do that, show this film from this distributor because it has a big German opening the week after. We've stayed firm. Once you go down that slippery slope, there's no return."

The lineup for the June 22-30 event was a tribute to the eclectic cinematic tastes of Strohl and his programmers.

From Cannes crowd pleasers such as festival opener "The Band's Visit" from Israel and Lucia Puenzo's story of a teenage hermaphrodite "XXY" to a section devoted to films made by, and for, the Indios of South America, Munich remained stubbornly independent.

That independence was on display in its choice of the subject for this year's retrospective. Munich picked the defiantly indie director Werner Herzog and screened all of his 52 films, from such earlier classics as "Fitzcarraldo" to recent works including documentaries "Grizzly Man" and "The Wild Blue Yonder" and the Vietnam-set drama "Rescue Dawn."

But from a U.S. perspective, Munich's importance always has been its unwavering support for the American indie scene. The festival was the first international event to launch a sidebar devoted to U.S. independent productions, and the crème de la crème of U.S. indie talent returned for the 25th edition.

Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, Tom DiCillio and Gregg Araki are only the best known of the American indie scene to have made their international debut in Munich.

Linklater, whose feature film debut "Slacker" bowed in Munich in 1990, returned this year to honor Ulla Rapp, the head of the American Independents sidebar, who retired after this year's festival.

"Ulla, your passion for our films really meant a lot to us and we are very grateful. We will miss you," Linklater said at a farewell ceremony for Rapp.

"You can't believe the impact these independent films had when we started screening them (in 1982)," Rapp said in an interview. "At the time, no German director would even pick up a camera unless he had a million dollars in state subsidies. Then there were all these Americans, who had made films for $20,000, $30,000, maxing out their credit cards and borrowing from family and friends. People were amazed. They were inspired by it."

The indie sidebar also inspired distributors, who started buying these low-budget pictures made in the U.S., establishing a European fan base for filmmakers who often remained unknowns in their home country.

"In another 25 years, when people look back at the Munich Film Festival, I think this will be our most lasting achievement," Strohl said, "to have made these films, these directors and this indie scene known to an international audience."

Rapp, it seems, picked an opportune time to leave. At the first Munich Film Festival in 1982, there was no indie film industry to speak of. None of the studios had their own indie labels. When Smith's "Clerks" had its international debut in 1994, it was a self-financed black-and-white film featuring no-names. "Clerks 2," which had its German premiere in Munich this year, was the product of the Weinstein Co.'s juggernaut and tied to the film's local release.

Strohl said Munich's American Independents sidebar would change with Rapp gone, though exactly how it will look in 2008 is unclear. One possibility being floated is to expand the section to include independently produced features around the world.

"We still haven't decided what form it will take, but it has to change because the indie industry has changed," Strohl said. "But independent cinema will continue to have a home in Munich. It's what the festival is really all about."
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