Oldenburg International Film Festival


Venues: Nine venues, including Oldenburg Penitentiary
Dates: Sept. 10-14
Opening-night gala: "Peaceful Times"
Closing-night gala: "Tyson"

When Torsten Neumann and Thorsten Ritter started the Oldenburg International Film Festival on four screens in 1994, they had no idea that over the course of the next 14 years they would turn a high-security prison into a screening venue, have a filmmaker flown in at the last minute via single-engine plane, and witness their little venture being labeled the German Sundance by an increasingly curious trade press.

Oldenburg hit the ground running, with legendary independents like Alex Cox (1984's "Repo Man") and Nancy Savoca (1989's "True Love") showing up for the festival's inaugural, where they screened about 70 films -- a number that has remained relatively constant since its inception.

"We figured that we'd rather start from the top and then adjust downward to the right size," says Neumann, who has been running the festival since Ritter left in 1998. Rather than make radical changes, Neumann concentrated on what was already working: young independent filmmakers surrounded by indie legends from Hollywood and Europe, awards for unheralded filmmakers, and a slew of original events to fuel Oldenburg's offbeat vibe.

And offbeat it is, not just because of the films -- which run the gamut from American independents to European art house fare, coupled with a healthy dose of exploitation cinema in the Midnight Xpress program -- but also because of the event's unique local color. One evening you might find yourself attending a reception in the stuffy-yet-elegant Staatstheater, the oldest theater in lower Saxony, and the next day standing in line at a charming, no-frills soup kitchen.

"At many festivals, there are big parties in big nightclubs, but once you get there you won't find any of your peers, so that the festival guests don't really get to know one another," says Neumann, who has encountered this kind of cheerful alienation at other festivals. "We try to create situations where people can get to know one another, (such as) all the little receptions that are only for the guests and journalists and film professionals."

But that doesn't mean the festival is inhospitable to its local clientele and sponsors: Energy company EWE, banking institution OLB and the regional Audi subsidiary all host soirees during the festival, but attendance is subject to Neumann's 50-50 rule, meaning that the number of festival people and local emissaries doesn't tip toward either side. Jurors are also included in all the festivities and not sequestered in some far-off hotel, which would be difficult since the three festival hotels -- Arcara, Altera and Antaris -- are within walking distance of one another.

The strategy of creating a communal experience for the guests seems to have paid off. Actor Seymour Cassel (1998's "Rushmore"), who was honored with a tribute in 1998 and has since become a mainstay, offers high praise for Neumann: "He is a wonderful and charismatic person who looks for films that have quality -- not necessarily 'Batman' and all that CGI crap," he says, adding that the festival also arranged for him to take a Volkswagen up to speeds of 161 mph on the Autobahn. Director Jim McBride (1987's "The Big Easy"), who visited in 2006 for "jury duty," also lauds Oldenburg for "exploring a scene that is getting smaller and smaller, and finding films that we are not really getting exposed to (in the U.S.)."

Even among the usually jaded German press corps, you'll find many who'll gladly return, even if it means selling their editors on what many major newspapers in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg or Frankfurt still consider a local event.

And then there are the films themselves. In an increasingly competitive field, Oldenburg still manages to provide its audience with some unsung heroes without falling into the all-too-common trap of grabbing every low-budget, neo-verite opus around or homing in on works of established masters that have already had more than enough play on the crowded festival circuit. "In principle, we are trying to create a somewhat edgy profile for the festival," Neumann says, "not just films from the classical art house category, like literary adaptations. We try not to play it too safe. New, innovative, maybe not even perfect cinema is interesting to us. If you want to put a director's name to it, I'd say Sam Fuller (1953's "Pickup on South Street") -- forward-moving entertainment that is also quite challenging."

Tributees and candidates for retrospectives are chosen pretty much the same way -- and mostly before bigger and more established festivals get hip to them. Asia Argento, for instance, visited in 1999 and has been a festival-darling ever since, and Keira Knightley made the trip to Oldenburg just before becoming a household name.

But the festival's biggest achievement has been the rediscovery of actors and directors whose contributions to film are nearly forgotten or overshadowed by their subsequent careers in television. Take this year's guest Michael Wadleigh, who made "Woodstock" in 1970, the Albert Finney cult hit "Wolfen" a decade later, then vanished without a trace to do development aid work in Africa, among other things. Then there's Stacy Keach, whose formidable presence in John Huston's "Fat City" and Walter Hill's "The Long Riders" often gets lost among his resume of better-known television work.

Bringing unsung legends like these together with young filmmakers is another hallmark of the Oldenburg fest -- and another reason the event has managed to stay true to its quirky roots for well over a decade now.

Keach says it best when he sums up his time as the jury president last year: "Oldenburg is a great place for young filmmakers to make their mark. I made friends with many of them. And it was great to see the old guys, too."

Four events that separate Oldenburg from the pack

The Festival Plane

For a select few Berliners, the shortest route between the German capital and the festival isn't the circuitous train route that takes about four hours, but a nonstop flight from the historic Tempelhof Airport -- Berlin's lifeline during the blockade of 1948-49 -- to Oldenburg-adjacent Bremen. But don't expect a Learjet: This is a small metallic torpedo with bag lunches on your seat and no flight attendant. Nevertheless, if it fits into your itinerary, this is the way to visit the festival. Since Tempelhof will most likely be closed in October due to a referendum, it might be your last chance to get to Oldenburg in style.

The Prison Screening

Established in 2006 for just one screening -- German director Peter Fleischmann's "My Friend the Murderer" -- and with the director and the subject (after he served his life sentence) in attendance, the festival has turned this high-security prison into a full-fledged screening venue. Guests and prisoners will sit side by side and watch what the program has to offer. For one group, it will be a welcome departure from the Gitternet -- the local (monitored and censored) closed-circuit television program. For the rest it will be a unique experience with a rather different focus group.

The Soup Kitchen

A popular Saturday mainstay for Oldenburgers who want to get some nourishment after a shopping spree. Envisioned as a counterbalance to the more posh receptions, it has evolved into a cherished event, flummoxing festival head Torsten Neumann, who, when asked this year what soup he might prefer, reportedly answered, "Whatever they have. This is way too complicated for me."

The 'Surprise' Parties

"We always try to get one unusual location," Neumann says, and offers several examples: an empty apartment that was used for a party for 2004's "The Girl Next Door"; a McDonald's, where some tables were unscrewed to make space for a dance floor; a car wash; an executive retreat; an old castle. Anything goes