The 11th Oldenburg Film Festival

8-12 September 2004

This festival seems to get bigger every year, with a choice of 5 films to choose from at peak slots. Although Oldenburg is a small town in North Germany, it manages to run an eclectic programme: fiercely independent films from around the world, a Andrzej Zulawski retrospective, the German premiere of the controversial Holocaust film The Grey Zone, numerous parties and related events, and on top of this the VIP room was awash with international guests and free beer.

A film that perfectly summed up the Indie spirit of the festival was Christopher Coppola’s The Creature of the Sunny Side Up Trailer Park (2004). The self-confessed ‘pirate’ of the famous Coppola family (his brother is Nicolas Cage) explained how he only shot on high definition digital format because he believes the digital revolution will create an alternative Hollywood. The film looked amazing (it’s hard to believe it’s not film) and had the same witty and ironic dexterity as such genre vehicles as Jeepers Creepers (2001) and Monster Man (2003).

The film joins together two unlikely brothers (one black, one white) who receive letters informing them they have property to inherit. Of course, when they meet at the Sunny Side Up trailer park they hate each other, and something is obviously wrong in the creepy run-down district, but they’re too greedy to walk away from inheritance and so have to ultimately join together to fight the monster. It’s tempting to read biographical details in the film (it was written by Coppola’s wife): notably in the central characters – two brothers who are totally different – and the way Coppola makes use of well known character actors who can no longer get work in Hollywood, hinting at the industry’s inherent ageism. It’s not at all the hack work suggested by its title, rather a heart-warming accomplishment, part homage and part moving black comedy.

The hit of the festival was the debut film, Hardcore, from Greek director Dennis Iliadis. Ignore the provocative title, Hardcore isn’t pornographic, but like Larry Clark’s Ken Park, it’s the ideas in the film that get under your skin. In the same way that Christiane F exposed the underworld of teenage drug addicts, Hardcore gives us insight into the world of prostitution in Athens. Meet Martha, 17 and Nadia, 16, who meet in the waiting room of the brothel where they work. The boss treats them like children – work is allocated with coloured post-it notes, yellow ones are the lowest paid, purple the highest. Martha (Katerina Tsavalou) is jealous of new girl Nadia (Danae Skiadi) so they become ‘best enemies’: jealous allies and lovers who destroy each other in their attempt to artificially create the love and security they need. At times grim and ultra-realistic, it is also a coming-of-age movie that perfectly captures the wildness of youth. Even after suicides and murder, nothing deters Nadia, who becomes a celebrity with her own TV show, but like Nomi Malone in Showgirls before her, she finds her rise to fame changes nothing about the way she feels. The film won the festival’s Audience Award to thunderous applause.

A popular theme this year was films about speed. The closing night film was Louis-Pascal Couvelaire’s adaptation of comic book legend Michel Vaillant. Story is really not the strongest point in the movie, which adapts extracts from different comic book strips; the main action and drama is relayed exclusively through racing scenes. French actor Sagamore Stévenin plays comic strip hero Vaillant who must race against arch enemy "leader" in the 24 hours race of Le Mans; much of the film’s driving footage was filmed during the actual race. The director’s previous film was Sweat (2003), a driving movie set in the desert characterised by beautiful cinematography. Luc Besson produced the film (once again showing his penchant for making exhilarating films – he produced or co-produced 11 movies in 2003.

On the other hand, some of the ‘films’ programmed turned out to be little more than home-made videos. Raiders of the Lost Ark: the Adaptation 1982-89 is an unofficial remake made by a group of kids over 7 years. Their big story is that Spielberg got hold of the film and met them. and producer Scott Rudin bought the rights to their story. All well and good, but when festival goers have a choice of up to five films at any given time, it helps to know which are ‘low-budget’ indie films costing 4 million dollars and those which cost substantially less! The programme really needs to indicate where video is shown. A cautionary lesson in overnight success was provided by the documentary, Overnight, which chronicles the rising career of one Troy Duffy, a barkeeper whose script was optioned by Harvey Weinstein at Miramax. Unfortunately, Duffy’s abrasive personality and impatience drove away his success, and although eventually he got his film The Boondock Saints made, no distributor would pick it up at first. Duffy does such a good job of destroying his credibility that you won’t feel sorry for him.

The German premiere of the American-made film The Grey Zone (2001) took place in an extra special venue, The Oldenburg Theatre, and was compered by a German professor who provided historical context after the film. Avoiding the standard black/white morality of Holocaust dramas, it’s about the struggle of the Jewish members of the 12th Special Kommandos who helped to persuade fellow inmates into the showers and disposed of the bodies in return for extra privileges. Although they have no choice, they find themselves in a moral grey zone, especially when feelings are mixed about a young Jewish girl who survived gassing.

Unfortunately, the film is quite literally a grey zone, lit so darkly throughout that we have to peer through the gloom to work out what’s going on. Even the Nazi uniforms are missing their distinctive red arm band and swastika. Although it was released three years ago in the US and starred such well known faces David Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel, Mira Sorvino and Natasha Lyonne, you’ve probably never heard of it. It wasn’t successful and the film doesn’t really work, because it lacks drama, although we can admire the director’s choice of subject matter. Like those directors who think it’s easy to make horror films, it just shows that even using something as traumatic the Holocaust can leave us cold unless we are encouraged to feel something for the characters. The film relies too much on the viewer’s pre-existing knowledge to fill in the gaps. After the screening director Tim Blake Nelson didn’t take any questions. The festival director gave a politically correct speech (in German) to the effect that "we as Germans can’t ask any questions about a film like this, we have to sit and think about it". Surely we always need to ask questions – especially when a large [proportion of the audience were born 40 years after these events happened.