- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Like the fiercely independent cinema it has been championing for the better part of three decades, the Oldenburg Film Festival has never had enough money or enjoyed much mainstream recognition.
For 28 years — the 2021 festival runs Sept. 15-19 — Oldenburg has been operating under the radar from a small city (population 170,000, about the size of Garden Grove, California) tucked away in the northwest corner of Germany.
“We’re not in a big city and we’re not a big festival — we’re not Cannes, we’re not Berlin and we’re always underfinanced. It’s a struggle, it always has been,” Oldenburg festival founder and director Torsten Neumann tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But being outside the spotlight has its advantages. We can get away with things the big guys can’t.”
Take 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down film festivals worldwide. Cannes rolled up its red carpet. So did Tribeca, Telluride and South by Southwest. But Oldenburg found a way to hold gala premieres under COVID-19 protocols. Instead of screening its 2020 lineup in packed cinemas with hundreds of guests, Oldenburg went intimate, with private galas at local homes.
“We called them Living Room Premieres because that’s literally what they were — we’d have the director and stars of the film presenting their movies to people in their own living rooms,” Neumann recalls. The galas were streamed live for the rest of the city’s locked-down audience to enjoy.
“We’d drop into these apartments, or homes on the outskirts, basically in the middle of nowhere, with the red carpet, the floodlights and the photographers,” he recalls. “We looked like alien invaders.”
For Oldenburg, that’s a good look. “It was actually perfect. The Living Room Premieres fit our whole image, that we’re a festival for the real fan. We do things a bit differently here.”
“Different” is a bit of an understatement. While Cannes and Venice this year used their lifetime achievement awards to honor Hollywood royalty — Jodie Foster and Jamie Lee Curtis, respectively — Oldenburg’s list of lifetime honorees, which have included Seymour Cassel, Keith Carradine, Tim Blake Nelson, Amanda Plummer and Bobcat Goldthwait, has been pure indie. This year’s lifetime honoree is Ovidio Assonitis, the Egyptian-born, Italian director best-known for cult classics including Tentacles (1977), Behind The Door (1974), and Piranha II: The Spawning (1981).
The biggest star to grace Oldenburg’s Walk of Fame — 2016 lifetime achievement winner Nicolas Cage — is, in Neumann’s words, “more indie than superstar. He still risks doing the crazy stuff.”
And risking the crazy stuff is what Oldenburg is all about.
While most second-tier festivals draw up their lineups by dutifully following the lead set by the big A-list fests, reprogramming a best-of selection from Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance, and Toronto, Oldenburg prides itself on screening “true independents” — films from directors proudly outside the mainstream, often without distributors or sales agents on board. Movies like the 2020 opening-night film Puppy Love, a seedy romance tale starring Hopper Penn and Paz de la Huerta. The feature debut of Canadian music video director Michael Maxxis, Puppy Love had its world premiere in Oldenburg and went on to win the festival’s German Independence Award for best film and the best actress prize for de la Huerta.
One of the first films Neumann picked for the 2021 edition is The Maestro, a B-movie shlock horror tale from Thailand starring world-renowned composer Somtow Sucharitkul as a conductor/homicidal murderer. “It seemed to suit us,” says Neumann. Arguably the biggest title on the 2021 line-up is Titane, Julia Ducournau’s Cannes-winning second feature, which will have its German premiere in Oldenburg on September 17. But with that movie, about a gender-fluid serial killer who is impregnated by a Cadillac, it seems more of the case of Cannes imitating Oldenburg than the other way around.
Among this year’s highlights are Michael Sarnoski’s Pig, starring Nicolas Cage as a truffle hunter seeking revenge, Michael Mailer’s Swing, featuring Michael Shannon as a Vietnam vet who takes over as a coach of an Ivy League rowing team, and the long-awaited animated feature Mad God from Oscar-winning special effects master Phil Tippett (Jurassic Park, Starship Troopers).
Both Pig and Mad God will have their German premieres in Oldenburg. Swing‘s Oldenburg bow will be its world premiere.
Among the other world premieres at the German festival will be Faggots, the directorial debut of Polish actor Patrycja Płanik (together with co-director Domink Krawiecki); the Myanmar drama What Happened to the Wolf?, from director Na Gyi; Foxhole from U.S. filmmaker Jack Fessenden; and the German dramas Tyrannenmord from director Christoph Stark. U.S. independent cinema will be strongly represented again in Oldenburg, with other highlights including Naveen A. Chathapuram’s directorial debut The Last Victim, a neo-western starring Ron Perlman, Ali Larter, and Ralph Ineson; the world premiere of documentary The Pasha, New York director Josie Maynard’s look at Afghan warlord, and foe of the Taliban, General Abdul Rashid Dostum; and Anchorage, the directorial debut of actor Scott Monahan, who also stars alongside fellow actor and screenwriter Dakota Loesch in a story of two brothers trying to drive a trunk full of opioids from Florida to Alaska.
Instead of celebrating established stars, Oldenburg has put its focus on finding indie talent before they break big. The festival gave Noémie Merlant its best actress honor in 2016 for Twisting Fate, years, before the rest of world discovered her in Céline Sciamma’s 2019 Cannes Festival, hit Portrait of a Lady on Fire. (Merlant returns to the Croisette this year as the star of Jacques Audiard’s competition title Paris, 13th District). A teenage Keira Knightley made the trip to Lower Saxony in 2001, for Nick Hamm’s British indie The Hole, six months before Bend It Like Beckham would make her a star. German director Jan-Ole Gerster took his breakout debut Oh Boy (also known as A Coffee in Berlin) to Karlovy Vary and Munich first, but it was as the opening-night gala of the 2012 Oldenburg festival that launched his career. Oh Boy won best German movie, best acting honors for star Tom Schilling and the audience award for best film — en route to sweeping the German Film Awards, taking six Golden Lolas — and winning Gerster a European Film Award for European discovery of the year.
While Neumann, and Oldenburg, have been blazing this iconoclastic path for 28 years now — “I’m 56, so I’ve literally been doing this half my life,” he notes — the 2021 festival feels like a turning point, and not just because The Hollywood Reporter will be the exclusive international media partner for the 2021 Oldenburg festival.
The past year, we all know, has been devastating for traditional cinemas and for independent film. COVID-19-imposed lockdowns and theater closures combined with the rapid growth of global streaming platforms, starving cinema “of its livelihood as the actual home of film,” says Neumann. In this new world, where studios and mainstream directors increasingly bypass cinemas to release their films directly online, festivals like Oldenburg that celebrate movies outside the mainstream can bridge the gap between independent filmmakers and content-deprived theaters.
“If mainstream cinema continues to withdraw from the classic channels to its own online platforms, that is an opportunity for independent films and the cinema,” says Neumann. “This is exactly where the new cooperation between Oldenburg and The Hollywood Reporter will start.”
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day