Spotlight: Oldenburg Film Festival

Fest offers discerning film fans an edgy, one-of-a-kind experience

"We look for films outside the pure mainstream and also outside the typical art house," says Torsten Neumann, director of the Oldenburg International Film Festival. "Ones that may otherwise fall through the cracks and not get noticed."

Now in its 16th edition, Oldenburg proves that, justifying its reputation as Germany's premiere indie fest by putting innovative filmmaking ahead of boxoffice glamour, while still filtering out the dregs of the low-budget scene. This year's lineup shows Neumann and his team still haven't lost their eye for overlooked gems with crossover potential.

Just take a look at a sampling of the U.S. contingent heading to Oldenburg from Sept. 16-20: "Stay Cool," a semi-tribute to the teen films of the late John Hughes by indie directing duo Michael and Mark Polish; Noah Buschel's comedic mystery "The Missing Person," starring Michael Shannon as a P.I. hired to track down a man gone missing after Sept. 11; "Staten Island," a gangster tale from director James DeMonaco set in the New York borough and starring Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio and Seymour Cassel; Buddy Giovinazzo's inner-city drug drama "Life is Hot in Crack Town" and Judith Krant's "Made in China" about an inventor of joke novelties who tries his luck in Shanghai.

The titles give a good impression of the kind of indie Oldenburg likes to feature: edgy but just this side of experimental.

"We understand that industry buyers make 90% of their acquisitions at the big festivals," Neumann notes, "but we hope we can still be a place where people can make discoveries."

This is particularly true for German independent film, which has pride of place in Oldenburg. This year's homegrown selection ranges from Sherry Horman's opening-night film "Desert Flower" -- a biopic on super model cum human rights activist Waris Dirie-- to the teen romance-cum-horror splatter mix "Must Love Death" from first-timer Andreas Schaap, which will screen in Oldenburg's German Independents sidebar section.

Neumann has also carved out a larger space for international indies, so the 2009 event will feature entries both from festival circuit regulars and unknowns.

"The independent scene, in Europe especially, is getting stronger and that's something we wanted to reflect in our lineup," Neumann says. "Another trend we've seen is the increasing return to genre films, or films with strong genre elements, like (festival entry) Olivier Marchal's 'MR 73,' which stars Daniel Auteuil as a washed up policeman and which is almost a straight-up cop film."

For its retrospectives and career tributes, Oldenburg favors the unsung or forgotten over more familiar names. This year's retrospective is for Brazilian director Bruno Barreto, who received an Oscar nomination for "Four Days in September" in 1997 and took on the rough life of Rio's favelas in "Last Stop 174." Oldenburg will also honor U.S. directing duo Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who, despite critical support, have never broken through to the A list. The festival will screen all four of the pair's feature films: the switched-identity drama "Suture" (1993), mystery thriller "The Deep End" (2001), family drama "Bee Season" (2005) and the split-narrative experiment "Uncertainty" (2008).

"Whenever we announce our tributes at our festival press conference, there are always the same uncomfortable silence and puzzled looks," Neumann says. "It's only when I start to go through their films and accomplishments that people start nodding in agreement."

Alongside the movies themselves, Oldenburg's reputation has been built on its unique atmosphere. A lot of regional fests have local color, but how many can boast screenings at a maximum security prison with guards that make Cannes' snooty gatekeepers seem downright courteous in comparison? How many feature after-screening parties at the local McDonald's or neighborhood car wash?

"It's a really special, really unique atmosphere," says Esther Bernstorff, screenwriter of Oldenburg's 2008 winner "The Stranger in Me." "There are no VIP rooms, no velvet ropes. All the directors, actors and locals mix. I mean there aren't many festivals where the festival director gets up and starts DJing his own party."