Oldenburg Film Festival

3-7 September 2003

The Oldenburg Film Festival in Germany has a peculiar charm. This small student city somehow manages to host a major festival with dozens of international guests. The main venue has a chic student feel, run by an army of young helpers, and has had its fighting spirit captured in local documentary Let it Rock, itself a spoof the new Berlin documentary, Let it Roll, which premiered there. The issue of whether the revitalised area of Berlin Mitte has lost its former cult status may seem trivial (after the Berlin Wall came down there was an emergent anyone-can-set-up a club scene), but its nervous consideration of cult versus commerce reflects deeper concerns – national identity and the fragility of a united Germany. Although a number of German films premiered here (including Felix Randau’s stark Northern Star), the programme was rich with US indies as well as retrospectives of Larry Clarke and Philippe de Broca.

A number of films explored sexuality in innovative ways. The feel-good film was the appropriately titled Rub & Tug (2002), which features the antics of three resourceful massage parlour girls pitted against their new, inexperienced male boss Conrad (Don McKellar). Director Soo Lyn spent a year ‘doing research’ in obscure massage parlours and turns sexual politics on its head with this surprising story, which rather than showing women as victims reveals that they actually control their management. One of the girls even has a nipple fetish. There’s never a dull moment, the idea, script and acting are all superb, and this independent Canadian movie is already generating a considerable buzz. Even though it is sexy, it is all tongue-in-cheek, and you could watch it with your mum and not flinch.

In contrast, Larry Clarke’s latest film, Ken Park, once again explores teenage sexuality cynically. The film can be praised for its tenacity in showing the traumatic effects of child abuse and for its unflinching portraits of corrosive family units, but it loses most of its shock value by its banal portrayal of sex and violence. The camera angles are not selective enough, everything is revealed in the style of cinema verité, and a potentially explosive encounter between a boy and his girlfriend’s mother is rendered dull and lifeless. The framing story – concerning Ken Park’s suicide – is artificial because he does not cross the storylines of the film. Although Clarke documents the bleak banality of life, if none of his characters care enough about their lives then the central conflicts of the story are flattened as well. The film has a few moments of brilliance, but the dialogue shocks more than its images. And bad sex is a turn-off, although of course it could be argued that this is precisely the point.

Issues of sex, power and poor parenting are also raised in Catherine Jelski’s The Young Unknowns (2000). Jelski is a professional script supervisor (her work includes Dazed and Confused, 1997) and it shows. The film is dependent on heavy dialogue scenes between her twenty-something cast who are struggling to deal with the pressures of Hollywood. Charlie Fox (Devon Gummersall) , a commercial director, is trying to impress his director dad who now lives in London with his third wife, without worrying too much about his absent alchoholic mother. Whilst waiting for important phone calls in his luxurious LA pad, his girlfriend and friends take the brunt of his anger. At first the film seems overly talky, but as the characters’ behaviour grows more extreme, the audience is sucked in and the violence and misogyny escalate relentlessly.

Two fun films were Hey DJ and The Old Testament, whose directors dressed in costume for the duration of the festival. Jon Jacobs’ Hey DJ chronicles the meteoric rise of Elvis look-alike DJ Hound Dog, who starts off a washed-up alcholic, yet manages to pull good looking women, including both halves of a lesbian couple, and then has problems managing his complicated love life. Like Rub & Tug, it’s a feel-good film about sex, and delights in showing groovy encounters, Mike Myers style, all set to music. Filmed around the Miami club scene, the director is the main star, and I suspect it’s heavily autobiographical. It’s emotional porn with characters who want to feel real.

The Real Old Testament directed by Curtis Hannum was also surprisingly funny. Once again it featured the director as the main protaganist – God. It presents stories form the old Testament, MTV style, and pokes gentle fun at the foibles of his divinity. The fun is found in exploring what’s missing from the bible, such as documenting reactions from the minor characters who are none too happy about some of the commandments. It’s hilarious, despite being cheaply made and shot over a long period, and proof that it is still possible to win over the audience with a well-made low budget film.

And, finally, Matthew Biancaniello’s short film Breadbasket (2002) packed a punch and gives an idea of the festival’s scope. It deals with the issue of male eating disorders and featured the director as an out of work actor whose obsession with his weight, most importantly his stomach, is literally getting in the way of his work. The film delights in showing Biancaniello emptying a fridge or making multiple trips to fast food shops, all the while trying to maintain a detached ‘I am a customer’ mentality. Not even a friendly chat with a fellow dwarf actor can make him stop feeling ‘abnormal’. Finally, he wears French bread rolls on his arms and alternately eats off the bread and hacks off his protruding stomach with a knife. Startingly original.

This hip festival also inititated the 99 Euro films project, which is being screened soon in cinemas throughout Germany.