Many film festivals celebrate independent films, but few live the independent spirit quite like the Oldenburg Festival. Each year, the northern German event faces the same challenges – attracting stars, finding venues, attracting media attention – as most independent productions. And like independent films, Oldenburg is always chronically short of funds.
But every year, in the best indie tradition, Oldenburg manages to find a way.
In 2001, blocked by the lack of German independent films, or even of a true tradition of German independent film, Oldenburg decided to create his own. The supported festival Movies at 99 eurosan omnibus short film project of 12 five-minute films – each shot on a mini-DV camera with a budget of €99 ($105) – to prove, as the promotional text puts it, “that German films can also to be wild, new, modern, funny, political and entertaining… and that young German filmmakers come together, inspire exciting young actors to come up with an idea and simply film it.Oldenburg repeated the experience in 2003 with 99euro Movies 2.
The first group of German independent directors included Nicolette Krebitz, whose 2016 films Wild which premiered at Sundance and was in competition at the Berlin Film Festival this year with AEIOU: a quick alphabet of love; Matthias Glasner, who followed with the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival Jury Prize winner Free will; and Rolf Peter Kahl, the latter of whom, When Susan Sontag sat in the audiencea dramatic recreation of the 1966 ‘Dialogue on Women’s Liberation’ debate held in New York City Hall between Norman Mailer, Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, Jacqueline Ceballos and Diana Trilling, has just arrived in German cinemas.
In 2005, when Oldenburg needed a venue for premieres, festival director Torsten Neumann approached the director of the city’s high-security prison, the JVA. The result was “Knastkino” (Prison Cinema), now an Oldenburg tradition, where the festival holds annual galas for guests and inmates who sit side by side. Guests pass the full prison security check to be allowed entry. And the prisoners adopt their best behavior. The event went off without a single incident in more than 15 years.
Even in 2020, when the COVID pandemic interrupted public events around the world and the festival was forced to take place only online, Oldenburg found a way. German regulations allowed small groups to gather in private homes, so Neumann turned to festival fans to open their homes, and the Living Room Galas were born. Directors and guest film stars walked the red carpet to private homes – Oldenburg pimped the aisles with klieg lights and local paparazzi to give it a proper gala atmosphere – where they watched their premiere together on the couch and answered questions in an intimate Q&A afterwards. Oldenburg broadcast the whole thing live.
As far as stars go, Oldenburg has had its share, though it still leans to the indie side of the spectrum: Nicolas Cage, Amanda Plummer, Keith Carradine, Matthew Modine, Peter Dinklage, Mira Sorvino. And like local audiences, Oldenburg is fiercely loyal. Actor Seymour Cassel, the John Cassavetes regular who received a retrospective at the Oldenburg Festival in 2008, was so impressed he kept coming back, with Little New York (2009), Pete Smalls is dead (2010), Fort McCoy (2011) and lost angels (2012). Eventually, Oldenburg renamed his acting honor the Seymour Cassel Prize, and after Cassel’s death in 2019, the festival held a retrospective honoring the beloved indie icon.
When it comes to media promotion, Oldenburg knows how to attract crowds. For Michael Maxxis’ opening film in 2020 puppy love, Neumann received permission from a newly constructed building in the city center to let Spanish street artist Okuda San Miguel, who had designed the film’s poster, create a spray mural inspired by one of the scenes from the film featuring stars Paz de la Huerta and Hopper. Penn. The technicolor result, featuring Okuda’s signature combination of organic and geometric forms, became an Oldenburg tourist attraction.
Last year, Oldenburg even managed to put a new spin on the masterclass, that old film festival tradition of hosting interviews with directors and guest stars, putting it all on the road. The Find Your Wild program has seen the likes of Laotian director Mattie Do (The long walk), Dakota Loesch and Scott Monahan (the writer and director-plus-star of Oldenburg’s 2021 Best Picture winner Anchoringrespectively), as well as veteran Italian director-producer Ovidio G. Assonitis (Tentacles, The visitor) get into a Jeep Wrangler to cruise the streets of downtown Oldenburg while talking about their life and work. Think carpool karaoke without singing.
Oldenburg has yet to reveal the lineup for its 29th edition, scheduled for September 14-18, let alone the unique events, parties and experiences that will make this year’s festival unforgettable. But after three decades of staying real and finding a way, one thing is certain: Oldenburg Festival 2022 won’t just be a celebration of independent cinema, it will be an independent experience.
A film maestro pays tribute to a master
Thai composer and filmmaker Somtow Sucharitkul had so much fun when he brought his youth orchestra Siam Sinfonietta to Oldenburg last year that he is returning for the 2022 edition, this time to honor the legacy of one of his musical heroes, Bernard Hermann.
Few musicians would fly 8,000 miles for an encore. But Sucharitkul and his orchestra are ready to make the trip from Bangkok to Oldenburg again.
Somtow says he fell in love with the festival after being invited to the 2021 event. Initially, it was just to attend the world premiere of The conductor, a Thai horror film that Somtow wrote and starred in (he plays a murderous, power-crazed composer). But after talking to Oldenburg festival director Torsten Neumann, Somtow became more ambitious. He invited his youth orchestra, the Siam Sinfonietta — which performs in The conductor — to join him in northern Germany. Together they opened and closed the 2021 festival, performing music from the film, as well as original renditions of other scores, including those by Oldenburg’s guest of honor in 2021, Italian genre master Ovidio Assonitis (Tentacles, beyond the door).
“Torsten’s bold idea of ’just going ahead and doing it, screwing up the consequences’ was something I immediately admired. [He’s] a soul sister. His idea allowed me to contribute something really different,” says Somtow. “It also broadened our children’s repertoire. They’re very good at Mahler and Tchaikovsky and all that – but there’s no occasion to do, say, Morricone in a classical concert that often.
For this year’s return, Somtow is planning a tribute to Bernard Herrmann, the legendary composer whose work spans scores of Citizen Kane and psychology for Taxi driver.
“If there had been no film industry, Herrmann would have become one of the great opera composers of the 20th century. He wrote an opera, The Wuthering Heights — it’s film music on steroids,” says Somtow, who adds that he has composed nearly 20 operas for the stage.
“But when I think, ‘Which composer influenced me in my composition for this form of dramatic art more than anyone else?’, I feel like saying Mozart or Wagner or Strauss, and I end up often by looking Bernard Herrmann in the eye. My love of horror comes from my mother who takes me to see psychology several times when I was about 8 or 9 years old. She kept her eyes covered. … I did not do it. The score left an indelible impression.