Oldenburg Film Festival Celebrates 20 Years of Independent Spirit

Kiss of the Damned

Budget cuts and local political infighting haven't stopped Germany's answer to Sundance from celebrating its second decade in style.

OLDENBURG – The Oldenburg International Film Festival kicked off its 20th anniversary this week in proper celebratory style with the gala premiere of Lola Randl’s drama, The Invention of Love.

Randl, along with the film’s leads Sunnyi Melles and Mira Partecke, Oldenburg jury president Bobcat Goldthwait, festival-mainstay Seymour Cassel and filmmaker Xan Cassavetes were in attendance. For organizers, particularly festival founder and director Torsten Neumann, the relief was palpable.

It’s been a tough year for Oldenburg, with previous budget cuts still in effect and a municipal standoff that has threatened to torpedo the indie festival billed as Germany’s answer to Sundance for years.

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It all started, as many of these conflicts do, with issues unrelated to the festival: as a purely political battle between Oldenburg city’s mayor Gerd Schwandner and his city-council, which will not be able to get rid of him until next year, but has the ability to block his proposals and cut funding for the projects dear to him.

This, unfortunately, includes the festival, which has seen its city-backed budget cut in half since 2009. While to money involved – about $52,000 – might not seem like much, it’s a sizeable chunk of money for Neumann and the Oldenburg fest, which had to take some cost-cutting measures to save this year’s event, including reducing the number of films and shifting away from a most costly multiplex venue for some of the screenings.

Neumann is used to improvising and getting the maximum bang for his sponsorship buck. Oldenburg has a reputation for being particular innovative when it comes to finding new sports to screen films or hold after-hours parties, holding screenings behind bars at the local high security jail, for example, or a party at an abandoned Oldenburg firehouse.

This year, the festival’s main sponsor, municipal bank OLB, also stepped up their contribution, putting up a $5000 cash bursary for the winner of Oldenburg’s top honor, the German Independence Award.

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The ongoing fight for money and Neumann’s frustration with the process have not gone unnoticed, leading to speculation last year that he might take his show on the road, a notion he actually encouraged with a festival teaser-ad entitled “So, where’s the Oldenburg Film Festival being held this year?”

Neumann laughs when reminded of this, adding that there are no current plans for a move: “That’s why we play with stuff like that. Last year the biggest rumor was if we were going to stay or move somewhere else. The slogan, by the way, is our little homage to Christina Aguilera, who supposedly asked ‘Where is the Cannes Film Festival going to be held this year?’”

This kind of attitude is emblematic for a festival that has always been known for its sheer inventiveness, playfulness (the ad was followed by a festival-trailer set to Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs “Stay (just a little bit longer)” and an affinity for intelligent genre fare that is uncommon on the festival circuit.

“What I dislike most about some other festivals is that only a certain kind of film travels the circuit. Arthouse cinema seems to be the only viable option for Venice and Berlin. And it doesn’t end there. Some smaller festivals simply have sometimes stopped to do their own programming and only play films that have the imprimatur of certain bigger festivals,“ Neumann says when asked about his competition.

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He certainly puts his (limited) money where his mouth is, inviting legendary 80s stand up comedian and indie-director Bobcat Goldthwait to serve as president of the international jury and a program that runs the gamut from arthouse-cinema like Gary Tarn’s The Prophet and Hannah Fidel’s A Teacher to Scott Michell’s serial-killer drama Scar Tissue and Xan Cassavetes' vampire love-story Kiss of the Damned.

To find films of this range, Neumann regularly travels to Cannes (“especially for the film market”) and Berlin (“more for the networking”), but also regularly visits New York and Los Angeles to find films others have missed through a close-knit group of Oldenburg-supporters in the industry.

His trips to Los Angeles have actually increased in the recent past, but for reasons that are – by now – completely unrelated to the festival. He and L.A.-based actress Deborah Kara Unger, whom he met three years ago when she was the president of the festival jury, are engaged to be married – with a wedding date being subject to two busy schedules.

Preparing the 20th anniversary-edition certainly didn’t leave Neumann much room to think about flower-arrangements and cake-tastings, with international guests including Cassel, who will be honored with the Seal of the City of Oldenburg “for his contributions to the festival and therefore the city”, A Teacher ’s leading lady Lindsay Burdge and Gustaf Skarsgard, who will fly in on Saturday from the set of ‘The Vikings’ to introduce director Markus Blunder's Autumn Blood, in which he plays the male lead.

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One guest who will definitely not attend is Iranian filmmaker Mania Akbari, who was granted political asylum in the U.K., but requires a special, expedited travel permit to leave the country, which was denied to her by Britain’s Home Office despite massive efforts by Neumann and Oldenburg’s mayor. Her son, who effortlessly got a similar permit from the German embassy in Kuala Lumpur, will introduce her films in her stead.

As for the next 20 years – even if the Oldenburg Film Festival moves to another municipality – Neumann is his usual cautiously-optimistic self, even though mayor Schwandner’s support is bound to disappear next year, since he does not plan to run for another term. But that is not to say, that Neumann does not have big plans for ‘the little festival that could’.

Asked what his wish would be for the festival’s future, he answers with the kind of attitude that has served him well during the last two decades: “That in the 20 years somebody finally calls Sundance the American Oldenburg.”