Indies put Oldenburg on map

Fest ups profile with sharp programming, artist outreach

Oldenburg, on the northwestern German plains about halfway between Berlin and Amsterdam, is not the center of the universe. Not even close.

So the plucky Oldenburg Film Festival has been working hard to make up for its rather inauspicious location with innovation and originality since its humble beginnings on four screens in 1994.

Germany’s answer to Sundance, fest will once again use the city’s high-security prison as one of its 10 screening venues, with inmates and festivalgoers watching pics together. It’s remained faithful to its origins as a haven for young independent filmmakers as well as a showcase for Euro and Hollywood indies. In keeping with that vibe, Brazilian filmmaker Bruno Barreto (“Last Stop 174”) as well as directing duo Scott McGehee and David Siegel (“Uncertainty”) will be honored — and on hand — in Oldenburg this year.

“We may be an ‘underdog’ as far as size goes, but we get it all into a four-day weekend. We’re compact, we’re exciting and we’ve got a really special atmosphere that makes people want to come back to Oldenburg again and again,” festival director Torsten Neumann says. “It’s got the kind of mixture between small town and glamour that you won’t find anywhere else.”

About 50 films will screen this year, and Neumann expects a crowd of 15,000 — about five times the number in 1994.

“There were more than 700 films submitted — a record,” Neumann says, adding that the quality of the pics offered had improved markedly in recent years.

German thesp Katja Flint and helmer Nina Grosse will come to Oldenburg with their pic “Der verlorene Sohn,” which will be screened at the local prison.

Neumann was a freelance film journalist 16 years ago when he and another scribe, Thorsten Ritter, decided to create “a better film festival.” They located it in Ritter’s hometown — which is about as close to nowhere in Germany as you can get — and turned any geographical disadvantage into a virtue by creating one of the most offbeat festivals in Europe in the heart of the city of 160,000 that was, until then, known mainly for that prison.

“We’ve got a lot of one-of-a-kind events that make it easy for people to get to know each other right off the bat,” says Neumann, who spends half of his time working as topper of Berlin distrib Independent Partners Filmverleih. “Each year we have a party in a secret location. One year it was in a bank vault. And half the town is out trying to find out where we are. It’s always a super party.”

Neumann, the sole director after Ritter went to head Bavaria Film Intl. in Munich, is most proud of Oldenburg’s independent reputation. With a budget of e350,000 ($502,000), Oldenburg is immune from outside influence, he says.

“Even though the term ‘independent’ has become rather diluted in recent years, we’ve been able to keep a genuinely independent spirit because we’re not dependent on anyone,” he says. “It’s a real advantage.”

Even if the city is far away from the center of the film universe in Germany, Oldenburg is only a 3½-hour train ride from Berlin, and this year there will even be special film festival charter flights on 19-seat prop planes shuttling from a private gate at Berlin’s Tegel airport to Oldenburg.