Film fest celebrates it's 40th year

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A big idea can go a long way, even in a small, sleepy southern Italian town. In 1970, Claudio Gubitosi, then a restless 17-year-old, envisioned a children’s film fest where the jurors are kids in his hometown of Giffoni Valle Piana, near the Amalfi coast. Gubitosi’s brainchild came to him “as a revolution of sorts against boredom and the sense that it was impossible to do something new and beautiful here.”

With its 40th edition now approaching in July, the recently rebranded Giffoni Experience annually hosts an army of young film buffs from some 40 countries, draws scores of A-list stars and has outposts in three continents, making it the world’s premier kiddie fixture. With a current population of 12,000, the city effectively becomes a cinematic holiday camp each summer, as 2,800 kids, teens and young adults from all over the world (ages 3-23) come together to watch movies, learn how they are made from big-name helmers and stars and judge their favorites for awards.

From the very first edition, in 1971, kids were not just participants but also protagonists of Giffoni,” says Gubitosi. That year, the jury was made up of 400 kids, albeit locals.

At first, Gubitosi caught flack from folks who said kids didn’t qualify as film critics: that they “weren’t able to judge a movie from a pedagogical perspective, or evaluate technical aspects like direction or acting,” Gubitosi recalls. But he stuck to his vision.

Kids know what they want: if a film is powerful, it makes an impression on them,” he explains. If a pic is not, they won’t be diplomatic.

So, from its inception, Giffoni has been a unique testing ground for children’s goods, and it has had that function since way before Hollywood zoomed in on such concepts as “teen movies” and family fare, which these days play prominently at the fest. Hollywood pics have always been an integral part of Giffoni, usually as counterpoint to the more offbeat competition.

An early winner was Francois Truffaut’s “Small Change,” which poetically depicts often-naughty kids in the Gallic provinces. It scooped Giffoni’s nod for best film for adolescents in 1978. Lasse Hallstrom, a frequent guest, first came to Giffoni in 1986 with “My Life as a Dog,” his tale of a boy coming to terms with abandonment, which Gubitosi considers among the fest’s five “most significant” titles.

Securing a solid spot on the international festival map prompted the town to upgrade its streets — and even its sewers — and provided impetus for financing and construction during the 1990s of Giffoni’s Citadel of Cinema, the 700-seat auditorium and offices facility that currently serves as the fest’s home base. Inaugurated in 2001, the Citadel is just the starting point for the next big step in Gubitosi’s vision, the Giffoni Multimedia Valley, with ambitions to become a “production incubator” (see story, page A36).

The new millennium saw Giffoni expand its horizons and take its format and a selection of titles around the world, starting with Berlin, followed by Miami, Sydney and Los Angeles, where it started an outpost thanks to American actor and admirer Jon Voight.

These days, Gubitosi considers Giffoni (which collaborates with 42 countries) as functioning “like a distribution network” that produces events at least 250 days per year.

The main event was expanded to two weeks and renamed Giffoni Experience in 2009. The 40th edition will run July 18-31.

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