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Oldenburg Film Festival

27th Oldenburg International Film Festival September 16 - 20, 2020 (virtual edition)

Rated among the top 5 Film Festivals worldwide for Independent Films by American film critic Chris Gore in his esteemed 'Ultimate Film Festival Guide', and ranked »Top 25 Coolest Festivals in the World« by MovieMaker, Oldenburg has fostered its success with a strong commitment to innovative and independent filmmaking.

Labelled ‘the European Sundance’ by Variety, Hollywood Reporter, and Screen International, amongst others, Oldenburg has evolved while preserving its intimate atmosphere and founding purpose: to celebrate and support the diverse voices and visions of independent filmmakers, to honor the creativity of the artists upon which the Festival depends, and to create a unique experience and inspiring meeting place for filmmakers, audiences, and media professionals.

The only festival in the world to play films in jail and invite festival guests with inmates.



Interview with Torsten Neumann about the last 25 years as Oldenburg festival director


There was a long wait, but I finally got a chance to sit down with Oldenburg Film Festival director Torsten Neumann to discuss the 25th year of this very special film festival, what one of the director's described as "punk rock" or a "punch to the face", but in a good way. It was such a treat to sit down and discuss films with someone whose passion about films oozes from his pores.
Torsten Neumann presenting awards on closing night. (Photo courtesy of  Lawrence Diederich / Filmfest Oldenburg) 


The programming at the festival this year was a really interesting and an eclectic mix, not at all able to fit under one specific label. Internationally so many films are released every year. It must be difficult to curate. How do you find and narrow down your films? 
Torsten Neumann: It is. I mean the good thing is that we are a relatively small festival, so that makes it always possible to keep our profile, to stay true to our profile in a way. I mean we've been saying, there are two things that are the main objectives for finding the right films. We would always prefer a film that is maybe not perfect in its execution but dares to go somewhere that not the usual film would go. And the other thing is that I see our festival as a bit like an open door between the genre festival circuit and the art house circuit. And I think that's a very natural position that we have. Of course there are so many films and that probably makes it eclectic. There are so many films that don't fit the standard draws for certain genres or for whatever and that makes them hard to sell. Even "Holiday". It's an unbelievable that it's such a good film and such a seemingly successful film, but it is still a film that is not that easy to put somewhere, to market it. And most films are clearly the films that we try to find and that we try to support and keep alive because in my opinion that is the main, real kind of cinema. Because art house is getting so much into turning into some new mainstream sidebar like for the bourgeois people and it's all formula and it's so not surprising but something to be marketed. In Germany there is, I don't know if it's everywhere else, but there's this expression that the distributors are using calling it "wellness art house". Did you ever hear that? 
No, I've never heard that term before, wellness art house.  
TN: I think it's very scary. These are the films, they are kind of the same like the stupid blockbuster industry in a different direction and everything in between is something that we are mainly interested in.
Unfortunately I wasn't able to watch all of the films screening this year, something that some of the filmmakers I interviewed also were sad about. Some that I did see and others that I heard about were a bit controversial or in some way shocking. Do you and your team curate with that in mind, hoping to shock and surprise audiences? For instance "Mandy" had a number of walkouts and I noticed during the "King of Beasts" premiere a handful of people leaving the theater. "Holiday" and "First Reformed" also had some difficult or controversial scenes. 
TN: Of course it's not our main goal, definitely not. And again, I think if cinema is causing not leaving you distance with the audience then they must be doing something right. If they are touching you, if it creates reactions even the shock is sometimes more important than the elevator music. 
I totally agree. 
TN:  I think we are in times when maybe we have to consider that we wake up sometimes and find a different perspective. And those films can do that. "Kings of Beasts" is an example. It's seemingly such a politically correct film, story because we almost all were going on the streets when Cecil (the Lion) was killed by this dentist. He could have made it so easy for himself if he would explain everything and create a different approach to the story. But this decision to go with this guy and let's just accompany this guy into this weird, bizarre safari to kill the lion. I think it was super bold and I think it's a hundred times better and more important than National Geographic documentaries. 
I agree with you. The observational, kind of fly-on-the-wall way that Tomer and his co-director Nadav Harev executed their film. 
TN: And everyone who is maybe a bit comfortable with cinema sees the way it's told as it's revealing itself. It's such a bizarre situation that's created in the camp, this colonialism behavior is unbelievable for me. I think that it's super brilliant. 
I don't think that everyone in the audience was on that same page. I heard some grumbling in German after the screening about how they had wished that there had been some voiceover or more of an explanation that would tell them how to feel about the footage. It seems that some people are just more comfortable watching cinema that tells them how to think/feel rather than observe and decide on their own, which is a shame.  
TN: Yeah, it's a shame. So we confront people with their borders, maybe some will overcome it and maybe some won't. Of course it was also a decision for us to put this film as a Centerpiece Premiere. And we had been talking beforehand. How can we do this without giving people a little bit of a security net to understand it? But to be honest I think there was already a bit of a security net given. And the text (at the end of the film) and everything was proposing that it had a certain, right agenda but it was maybe not enough but we couldn't reveal or explain everything. I've been discussing this with Tomer and Gabrielle also beforehand. I think that he had some fights with his producers that he should, it would be easier to put in voiceover. 
It seems that producers always prefer the easier route.
TN: A few don't, but very few. 
At this year's festival there were a lot of complex films directed by or focused on strong women. The two actors awarded the Seymour Cassel Award for Outstanding Performance were, in fact, two actresses, Gabriella Ramos for "Eres tu Papa?/Is That You?" and Victoria Carmen Sonne for "Holiday". How did your jury decide to give the two acting awards to two actresses? It sometimes feels that there is more space or room for women in independent cinema as opposed to mainstream cinema.
TN: You know, the funny thing is that I've been talking about this before in other interviews and it's weird. I kind of always appreciated Truffaut more with his strong statements of no gender and no decisions above the quality of a film. And I think this was always the way we approached our programming and for some strange reason this is not the first year where we have had some really strong female directors who have some stories circling around great female performances. This year again was very obvious, it just happened for the films, not for any quota or something that we try to achieve. And the jury that is giving out these acting awards. We have a very informal group of people we have created over the years. We have a lot of friends who stay closely attached, alumnis who stay closely attached, filmakers and actors who from the business. And I created an advisory board and once if we have three people attending we decide okay you three are the jury for this acting award. I think that an acting award should be given out by people who really see the certain differences. It's such a fine line to be impressed as an audience member and as someone who is knowing this craft, understanding it. And I was very pleased with the decisions we have had in the last years. And the good thing also is that there are no strict rules. We had this award for one performance and then the year that Matthew Modine was here for the jury he said, "Torsten, we have to give out two awards." And we gave them out and then I had to promise, okay we give out two awards, which was then naturally that we give out one for male and one for female award. It's not written in stone, so one year we had a best actress who was just a supporting actress who had two or three appearances, but she made such an impression. Do we need to give a best leading role? And we were like, no, it's an outstanding performance. That's it. So I was kind of pleased with the jury this year saying we have to consider this and there are some great male performances but we had so many strong female performances. We had also films by female directors, we had this maybe something to point out and that they were proposing it and I'm kind of happy with this.  
Yeah, I was very excited for both of them. They both gave superb performances that really left strong impressions long after leaving the theater.
TN: And there were quite a few others who left an impression. Some great names also attached. Emily Mortimer in the Stacy Cochran film. Did you see that? 
No, I missed that one. Emily is always quite impressive. 
TN: She is so good, really. And she is also supporting. So there were quite a few performances that were female, also strong female characters to do a portrait. So I'm really happy with this decision. I think it was a bold statement and it was also not supposed to diminish any male performance.
You just successfully wrapped up the 25th year of the Oldenburg Film Festival. Can you share a little about the evolution of the festival, from that first year in 1994 to 2018?
TN: It's still growing. There's no doubt but an interesting point is that the size was almost always the same. We started with five days, from Wednesday to Sunday, and maybe in the first two years there were a smaller amount of cinemas and therefore movies but the kind of structure that we have has been almost there for the whole time. We have one course that is the independent section. Then we have an international section. Always we have many films that could go in both. There is no clear separation. There's not always a clear definition what is an independent film but we have this structure and we never had a German section that was singled out, which I think is always good because if we include German films they should be included like the other films. And the midnight section is getting more and more powerful because of this open door between the different worlds, fantasy and horror and art house. But this has been existing for a while. But what makes it still growing is the way it is recognized or seen and also the reputation is growing. That means that demands are growing, more entries and the quality is getting clearly higher with the films we have to make choices from and the whole infrastructure needs way more work to accomplish. Because if we have the world premiere of a film like "King of Beasts" we cannot just do a screening in Oldenburg and say bye bye. It's a certain event. We understand what the filmmakers need to decide to give this one screening. There is only one world premiere so that makes it growing and that is the exciting thing about it if we can hold up with/like this. I can also be proud to say that we want and can show this film and present it and also have the moral right to do it because I can create something that is helpful for those films. Otherwise I would have to say maybe it's better to go somewhere else. So that is the main thing that made this festival grow immensely, especially in the last five, six, seven years. 
I'm sure next year will be even grander, with more world premieres. 
TN: I don't know. It's a lot of up and downs. I think last year we had even more world premieres, but still there are films like "The Boat". I was so in love with this film and it's not everybody's film. I heard some people say, "ohh, I didn't get it." But I was really impressed by it. It was a German premiere here, nothing else. This film has been going to small festivals and it is clearly completely out of the awareness of any of the bigger festivals. Maybe the filmmaker didn't put it there or it was turned down or he has no real sales rep. And you know how this happens, why films are not coming to the bigger festivals. It was not a world premiere but this was a film that I thought, oh god this needs to be seen. And this other film, this little Swiss experimental, indie, underground film, "Don't Tell Me You Can't Sing". There are two actresses who created the film, one directed, they both produced, one is playing the lead. It's such an unusual film and they had such a hard time to be seen. They were coming to the festival and were almost in tears, reading our text even saying, "You gave our film life again" and if you watch it you know what I'm talking about. It's so not easy for an audience to take it and stay with it but it's very powerful. It's a story of abuse, and it's powerful. But it's not going towards the audience. It is what it is. 
Would you mind sharing two special or unique moments that happened at this year's festival, the 25th year? Anything that's still lingering. 
TN: Naja...good question. I was very, very pleased with the opening night and the turning out of I think 950 people, for a Russian film that was also not easy opening fare. That made me very happy because there was also a lot of tension beforehand if it works out. Usually the opening film is a German comedy. And then, a special's kind of everything with Bruce Robinson. I'm kind of proud that he came and that he felt very appreciated, and he was always having his fights with the industry. He's such a smart guy. I enjoyed his presence very, very much. When I introduced him for the beginning of the retrospective after the audience reception for "The Rum Diary" he was shy. And he has all this anger and fighting mode and then he was really shy. That was really beautiful. I liked it a lot. 
Can you single out one film throughout the past quarter century of running this festival that really shocked or stunned you? 
TN: It takes a while to go through all the twenty-five years I've been doing this. We now have this VOD platform that we do in cooperation now. It has a "Best of" and we try to collect more films and have a presence throughout the year. So I was going throughout all the twenty-five years and I was picking out for each year the films that I think, oh this is special for us. This could be special to bring it up again. And my first list was almost 200 hundred films. I was shocked that we even in the early years...but in the 90s there was somehow more possible I think. We had some really cool films where I think, wow we should bring them out. I was very surprised about it. But the very special films, the one most shocking film. In '99 we had a program of three thirty minute films about family but it was all very dark and edgy. Lucile, the wife of Gaspar Noé, had one film but I couldn't tell you the title. Then we had one New York-based filmmaker his name is Douglas Buck and he had a film that was called "Family Portraits", I think. And that is probably the most shocking film we've ever screened. I know he's a big admirer of Ingmar Bergman, so he's doing this very heavy, slow-moving film about guilt and it turns into the worst splatter that you've seen and it's not fun. Now every splatter movie has a certain fun factor to keep your distance and this took you in. Back then I was sneaking in the screening and I heard people, what you heard from "Kings of Beasts" one or two times. Real painful, not disgusted or anything but then they started to run out. They really started to run out. 
And were you proud to get such an extreme audience reaction? 
TN: No, no not at all. It was very edgy. There's no doubt about it. But he is an interesting filmmaker. There's also no doubt. He came back a few years ago. There was an anthology of horror movies, "The Theatre Bizarre". Some really interesting directors and Douglas also had one part in it. Again, at that screening someone had to leave and was really sick afterwards. I think that some magazine was writing a story about it. So those were probably the most over the edge or edgy things we had with regard to shock value, and it's not that we aim for this. And the most surprising thing that ever happened was the opposite. This was one of my major moments of the last twenty-five years. We had a film called "Reach For Me" with Seymour Cassel in the lead. And he was always a very close friend and supporter of the festival. LeVar Burton was the director and Seymour was fighting with the producers so they would bring the film to Oldenburg, and we also had it in the State Theater (Staatstheater) like a gala screening and Seymour was always smoking his Havanas and he would stand on the balcony while I smoke my cigarettes. Then one of our team comes running excited to us and says the producer just ran out onto the toilet and she is crying. Something is maybe wrong. We went to her and she said, "I never realized that the whole audience is crying and totally involved." Everyone was in like a trance. And when we entered the stage they got a standing ovation and it was so real and you would feel it if it was out of politeness. It was, wow. I was onstage and I had to almost turn around because when I look into this then I would also start to cry. Then Seymour came and he got another huge standing ovation. It was a huge fucking triumph and it was what cinema can do when you have this group of people entering something and really getting into it. It was a lovely film, but I don't think that it made any big success. Maybe if you watch it alone you don't think much, but this caught everyone. It was very touching. In my opinion when Seymour Cassel is involved it's never kitschy. It's very tough and honest. Still people talk to me about this film and where they can see it. It was an unforgettable experience for everyone who was in the audience. It was really very special. Clearly, a standout in twenty-five years.  



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