For 30 years, the Oldenburg International Film Festival has held the faith.
When Torsten Neumann founded Germany’s largest small film festival in 1994, as a local answer to Sundance it was a place to celebrate innovative, unconventional and, above all, independent cinema. His North Stars were the 1970s New Hollywood genre films he had grown up with, and the new generation of 1990s indie filmmakers—Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction had won the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or just a few months earlier – challenging convention and transforming the mainstream.
Three decades later, not much has changed. As Neumann prepares for the 30th Film Festival (the 2023 event will run September 13-17), that original Oldenburg spirit – the celebration of the unusual, the weird and the fiercely radical – remains its guiding light.
“I’m always more interested in movies that take risks, even if they go too far, than movies that try to live up to expectations,” says Neumann. “A punch in the gut has more impact than a tickle.”
Neumann is still in the early stages of selecting this year’s lineup, but if history is any guide, expect to be surprised. Established indie darlings always have a place in Oldenburg – new films from Steven Soderbergh and Darren Aronofsky, Brian De Palma and Larry Clark, Johnnie To and Takeshi Kitano have all had their German premieres here, and the celebrity guest list over the years has included the likes of Nicolas Cage, Matthew Modine, Asia Argento and Amanda Plummer — but the real magic of the festival comes from Neumann’s tribute to the forgotten or overlooked, his tribute to the likes of cerebral directing team David Siegel and Scott McGehee (Attach, Montana Story), Greco-Italian exploitation king Ovidio G. Assonitis (Tentacles, Beyond the door) or the Laotian horror director Mattie Do (Dear sister, The long walk).
“We are almost painfully independent,” Neumann jokes. “The films we like are often too arthouse for a fantasy film festival and too genre for an arthouse festival. But I think that’s where some of the best cinemas can be found, and it’s those kinds of films that often fall through the cracks.”
“Oldenburg plays a vital role in the future of independent filmmakers as it showcases, encourages and celebrates stories that exist outside the confines of mainstream cinema,” says Mark Polish, a frequent guest in Oldenburg and, along with twin brother Michael, part from the producing and directing duo the Polish brothers (Twin Falls Idaho, North fork). “The sense of community Torsten has nurtured among like-minded artists is so strong that it really feels like a family. (The Oldenburg festival) reminds me of the power of cinema to bring people together and create lasting relationships.”
Notes actress Joanna Cassidy (blade runner, Who framed Roger Rabbit), a former guest of honor of the festival, “Oldenburg is a unique mix of film buffs from all over the world. It’s absolutely amazing.”
At his festival, Neumann does everything to create a communal, even family atmosphere. Last year he organized a joint retrospective of the work of Peter Hyams — cult director of Capricorn One (1977), Abroad (1981) and time cop (1994) — and his son, John, whose genre output includes two Universal Soldier films (2009’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration and that of 2012 Universal Soldier: Judgment Day) and the pandemic-themed horror film Sick. A 2017 Oldenburg tribute to legendary indie producer Edward R. Pressman (The crow, Wall Street, American psychopath), attended by Pressman’s wife and children, there was a Q&A with the atmosphere of a 1970s bohemian cafe: local film students gathered on the floor, hanging on Pressman’s every word.
During COVID, when local restrictions banned large gatherings and made a traditional festival impossible, Neumann, like any resourceful indie producer, found a creative solution. He hosted ‘Living Room Premieres’ where local festival fans offered their own homes as streaming venues. The director and cast arrived – all with negative COVID tests – to watch their film’s world premiere on their hosts’ couches. Oldenburg even set the tone by bringing in red carpet rolls, spotlights and local paparazzi to decorate each bungalow and semi-detached house with the look of a Cannes gala. The premieres were streamed live for the rest of the city’s closed audience to enjoy.
The reopening of cinemas meant a return to physical screenings, but Oldenburg continues to innovate. For the 2023 edition, Neumann has teamed up with German virtual reality platform MILC and film review site The Film Verdict to launch a “metaverse” version of the festival, where attendees can build VR avatars, running through computer-generated simulations of downtown Oldenburg can walk and attend virtual – but very real – festival world premieres.
“This is the first time at an international film festival where you will have physical premieres that will also take place in the metaverse,” says Neumann. “We’re trying to get them designated as their own special kind of world premiere — a metaverse premiere — separate from the regular national or international premiere.”
It’s unclear if Oldenburg’s metaverse will also include virtual versions of the festival’s legendary “secret” parties, held each year at different, one-off locations in this picturesque medieval college town. Pop-ups in Oldenburg used to be parties in bank vaults, fire halls, train stations and even an abandoned McDonald’s. In 2015, when Andrew Wilson and Luke Wilson made their directorial debut, The story of Wendell Bakerto the festival, the brothers partied with the locals in an abandoned elementary school, squatting on gym mats and drinking beer like university students.
“One of my favorite ‘only in Oldenburg’ experiences was dancing in the underground clubs with every gorgeous, long-haired German (I could find) who was a good dancer,” says Cassidy.
It was at one of these legendary parties in Oldenburg, in 2010, that Canadian actress Deborah Kara Unger, star of The game, Thirteen And Fear X (and chairman of the jury that year), hooked up with the festival director.
“We had both been busy, so we hadn’t seen each other for the entire festival, until the night before the closing ceremony,” Neumann recalled. “Deborah came over and said, ‘I need five minutes of your time.’ I said, “You can have two hours.” ”
Neumann and Unger have been together ever since – “the next day I called our travel agency and canceled her return flight, that was my big romantic move,” Neumann recalls – and Unger is now an inseparable part of the Oldenburg team.
Aside from the parties and Neumann’s unique programming – “brilliantly eclectic” notes Cassidy – Oldenburg is probably best known for its prison premieres. Each year, the festival hosts screenings in the JVA Oldenburg, Germany’s highest-security prison, where festival guests and inmates sit side by side.
“When my film (2013’s Gefährliches Schweigen) premiered there, there was a serial killer sitting next to me and a rapist on the other side,” says German actress and producer Veronica Ferres, whose new film, passenger c, directed by Oscar-nominated producer Cassian Elwes, will have its international premiere in Oldenburg this year. “And I talked to them about my film, what it did to them and also about their lives, the events in their lives that led them to this place. It was a huge honor to be there, to be able to have that experience.
The Oldenburg prison screenings are much more than a gimmick, they are integrated into the facility’s rehabilitation programs. Inmates interview directors and talent and produce shows for the prison-based newspaper and television channel Gitternet TV (roughly “iron cage” TV).
“I have never experienced anything like this at any other festival,” says Do, guest of honor of 2021 and last year’s jury member, “to have a personal creative exchange with the detainees there, to be able to speak with the detainees about how art, culture and film have influenced their view of writing a new chapter in (their) lives.”
It’s, Neumann admits, “a lot, a lot” of work to bring it all together: the maximum-security premieres, the secret parties, the fiercely independent lineup of the ignored or the overlooked. But after 30 years, Mr. Oldenburg sees no reason to stop.
“If I had a steady job, I’d probably go crazy,” he says. “When it works, the festival gives me what the best independent cinema gives you: that sense of adventure, that feeling that there’s something here that I’ve never seen before.”
THREE FILMS NOT TO BE MISSED IN OLDENBURG THIS YEAR
This trio of titles from the 2023 lineup shows how, 30 years later, Germany’s Oldenburg Festival continues to shine a light on the making of indie and avant-garde films that defy the mainstream.
Part high-altitude thriller, part docudrama behind the scenes of the Hollywood industry, this black-and-white film is the directorial debut of legendary indie producer and talent agent Cassian Elwes (Dallas Buyers Club, Lee Daniels’ butler, Mudbound), describes Elwes’ real-life encounter with an unruly passenger on a Bluejet redeye from New York to Los Angeles and the surprising, traumatic aftermath that would transform both men.
The Nothing Club
A surreal, experimental and intentionally multi-fractured view of the world and life of surreal, experimental and multi-fractured Portuguese modernist writer Fernando Pessoa, who wrote under some 75 different “heteronyms”: fully fleshed-out fictional personas with their own distinct histories, literary styles and philosophies of life. Cult filmmaker Edgar Pêra — director of Magnetic Paths And Oh Barao – introduces Pessoa’s many literary personalities in a noirish world of smoky bars and femme fatales where the main threat comes from the increasingly violent and deranged Álvaro de Campos (one of Pessoa’s most famous nom de plumes).
Constructed like a found footage film with an emotionless Terrence Malick-style voiceover and visual style reminiscent of a young Gaspar Noé, this feature debut by Truman Kewley is a disturbing first-person look at a violent kidnapper. which updates that of William Wyler The collector for the incel era.