Oldenburg Film Fest Bucks the Indie Trend for "Feel-Good Mainstream" Movies

Courtesy of Oldenburg Film Festival
'Swallow,' from director Carlo Mirabella-Davis.

In a tentpole-dominated world, the iconoclastic German fest, which runs Sept. 11-15, doubles down on its outsider status.

"The Marvel bubble has to pop eventually, doesn't it?" jokes Torsten Neumann, director of the Oldenburg Film Festival. "People have to eventually get tired of seeing the same films over and over. Don't they?"

Neumann, truth be told, is not so sure. For the past quarter century, the bald, bespectacled cinema obsessive has been bringing the world's oddest, most provocative and blatantly bizarre movies to a small city in the middle of nowheresville in northern Germany.

But as Neumann puts the final touches on the 26th edition of the fest, which runs Sept. 11 to 15, he's finding less and less crossover between the eccentric world of old-school indie cinema and a commercial film industry increasingly focused on a handful of studio tentpoles and a smattering of "feel-good mainstream" indie movies.

"Even at the big art house film festivals, you see the same dozen or so movies. There is less and less space for innovation, for the avant-garde, for cinema that doesn't fit into easy categories," Neumann says.

Paul Iacovou, a producer of the documentary The Ghost of Peter Sellers, which is screening at Oldenburg this year, agrees. "All the risk is being taken out of the industry — every decision is being backed up by data, by keywords and algorithms," he says. "Removing all risk is a dangerous thing in any creative field."

Instead of giving in to the mainstream, for his 26th fest, Neumann is doubling down on the weird. His 2019 edition features a typically genre-smashing lineup of impossible-to-classify titles such as Carlo Mirabella-Davis' Swallow, a psychodrama about a newly pregnant housewife compelled to consume dangerous objects; MOOP, a docu-fantasy-romantic-drama hybrid from director Arin Crumley; and Jeffrey McHale's You Don't Nomi, a documentary aimed at redeeming Paul Verhoeven's trashy 1995 flop Showgirls and establishing it as a modern cinema classic.

To help drive the fest's emphasis on experimentation, Oldenburg this year has unveiled two new awards: a debut feature prize aimed at supporting new voices, and an "Audacity Award," meant to honor a work of cinema that pushes the boundaries between genre cinema and the avant-garde.

"Audacious" is what some might call Neumann's ardent support of low-budget obscurities in a world dominated by superheroes and streamers, but the iconoclastic fest director doesn't see it that way.

"It might seem contradictory, given how difficult things have become for the independents," he says, "but I think this is exactly the right moment — just as the studios consolidate and the streaming companies with their algorithms are narrowing the range of what everyone is watching — for indie cinema to reinvent itself."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.