Film fest thrives on local support

TROMSO, NORWAY — Beyond the South Americans selling fresh empanadas on the icy main drag, and a snowball’s throw from the African man hawking Norwegian tabloids from a heated kiosk, lies the spanking new multiplex headquarters of the 15th Tromso International Film Festival.

Committed to showcasing pics lacking Norwegian distribs, the only winter fest north of the Arctic Circle was strong on Nordic premieres and arty films that received good buzz at other venues. With a population of 62,000 and tix sales at about 40,000, Tromso (Jan. 18-23) basks in the warmth of local support; the new multiplex, located in the city hall, allows for greater program expansion from the earlier limitations of being a two-screen town.

Emotionally wrenching Iranian feature “Turtles Can Fly” scored the fest’s Aurora prize (worth 75,000 Norwegian kroner — nearly $12,000 — and used to subsidize local distribution) and also topped the number of tix sold, while the FICC jury’s Don Quixote prize was awarded to the Norwegian/Moroccan co-production “The Gaze” (“Blikket”), a freshman feature by helmer Nour-Eddine Lakhmari. Other awards at the closing ceremony on January 22 went to the understated Serbian tragedy “Midwinter Night’s Dream” (FIPRESCI), and Iran’s “Beautiful City” picked up the Norwegian Peace Film Award.

Fest’s popularity with locals, especially the town’s university students, clashed at times with press and industry frustration with a new tix system that left some crix ostensibly sold out of screenings, though seats always freed themselves up at the last minute. That plus projection kinks at the new multiplex raised frustration levels which then spilled onto the pages of national papers. Despite tech hiccups, a high number of Norwegian distribs sampled a wide array of international offerings.

Tromso trumped Gothenburg this year in preeming three Swedish titles, along with three home-grown Norwegian features, including Ibsen update “An Enemy of the People” helmed by local boy Erik Skjoldbjaerg (“Prozac Nation”). Among audience faves was “The Armwrestler from Solitude,” a genial Swedish docu about the world champion female armwrestler; rollicking German comedy “Kebab Connection” and uber-camp Peruvian “Destiny Has No Favorites” played to packed houses, as did clever docu “Czech Dream.” Mike Leigh was also on hand for a cinema chat in conjunction with screenings of “Vera Drake.”

New fest director Martha Otte initiated the idea of the Leigh Q&A, as well as adding the “Overdrive” section to highlight pics with attitude, like Ryu Seung-wan’s “Arahan.” Screenings for locals in the northern outpost island of Spitsbergen was a further novelty, though Tromso’s own famed outdoor snow screen failed to solidify support and was never constructed.

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