Oldenburg festival relishes its offbeat nature


OLDENBURG, Germany -- Comparisons between the Oldenburg International Film Festival and the Festival de Cannes rarely come to mind. Cannes is, well, Cannes, while Oldenburg is a small festival in northern Germany -- so small that its "Blade Runner"-inspired trailer tells us it will be spared the great purge of film festivals in the future because the great censors don't even know it exists.

If you visit Oldenburg's newest screening venue, though, you'll find plenty to remind you of the Croisette: It's the JVA (Justizvollzugsanstalt), Germany's highest-security prison, and security there certainly comes close to the scrutiny one encounters when trying to enter the Palais in Cannes.

Tickets have to be booked one day in advance, ID is mandatory, and cell phones are verboten. And, like in Cannes, the audience is divided into two classes: people who go to their hotel after the screening and people who'll return to their cells (think yellow-badge-holders in Cannes).

This year's Oldenburg jury president, Stacy Keach (aka Warden Pope from "Prison Break"), who toured the JVA facility on the second day -- and was recognized by inmates, though not tied, gagged and put in a closet -- certainly liked the idea, calling the prison a "beacon of rehabilitation."

And it is: Instead of watching the Gitternet (the JVA's closed-circuit TV) or pumping iron, well-behaved criminals, for the duration of the festival, are exposed to cinema culture and people from the real world. Well, movie people, anyway.

The prison screenings are just one way Oldenburg sets itself apart from the mob of mid-sized international festivals. Aside from its everything-goes lineup, with titles like Michael Polish's "The Astronaut Farmer" playing alongside Volker Schlondorff's Kazakhstan-set drama "Ulzhan" and Steffen Jurgens' trash tribute "How to Sell a Tit Wonder," Oldenburg is a showcase for German indie cinema with three awards honoring up-and-coming filmmakers.

It is also a party festival. Most post-screening events, the JVA aside, go on till 7 a.m. -- probably the reason official screenings don't start until a very civilized 3 p.m. As Oscar-winning director Schlondorff put it, visiting Oldenburg for the first time this year even though his cinema-averse father was born in the town: "Oldenburg is clearly the young German festival."

Keach, who was honored with a lifetime achievement award -- and joked that it was like getting "to experience your own obituary before you die" -- plans to come back to "the Smashdance of Germany," even though he admitted that the first thing he did after receiving the invitation was to "Google Oldenburg" to find out where the heck it was.

Too bad Abel Ferrara, who canceled on very short notice, citing a moved-up production schedule, didn't show. He certainly would've appreciated Oldenburg's anything-goes atmosphere -- but hopefully not enough for him to become an elite member of the JVA screening circle.