In a crowded courtyard a few hundred feet from some of the Caribbean's finest beaches, hundreds of locals, tourists and industry folks gathered to witness Aruba's introduction to the world of film festivals this past Friday night. The festival's guest of honor, actor Richard Gere, was joined on stage by Aruba's Prime Minister Mike Eman, festival director Claudio Masenza, and festival producers Giuseppe Cioccarelli and Jonathan Vieira to officially kick off the 8-day event.
"These guys took a huge chance putting something like this together," Gere said. "The only way you can do that is if there's a couple of people who go 'we're just going to do it. We don't know how we're going to do it but we're going to do it.' There's nothing to fall back on really, and I know these guys put themselves on the line."
Gere was on hand to receive the festival's humanitarian award, participate in a rowdy "in conversation event" (where a few locals adamantly asked for a hug and excitedly ignored strict instructions not to take photos), and be on hand for a screening of Lasse Hallstrom's "Hachiko: A Dog's Story" - the Gere-starring drama that opened the festival.
"This is my first time here in Aruba," Gere said. "You have such beautiful people... and such a beautiful island. You also have an extraordinary opportunity here to make a real paradise. Because I understand you have really good leaders. If they keep listening to you and you work well together, this place can be an extraordinary place."
Many a Arubian (not to mention the two dozen or so journalists from around the world that were invited to attend the fest) might disagree. Aruba already is an extraordinary place. An island just north of the Venezuelan coast that runs only 17 miles long, its 90,000 or so residents are a remarkably pleasant bunch (and seemingly can all speak at least four languages - English, Spanish, Dutch, and a linguistic mixture known as Papiamento). And their excitement at the opportunity to host a film festival was evident everywhere.
The festival - which continues through this Friday - is giving Arubians an eclectic mix of programming to satisfy that excitement: Panels featuring the likes of Gere, actress Patricia Clarkson, editor Thelma Shoonmaker and writer/director Guillermo Arriaga; a collection of shorts from Caribbean filmmakers; a sizeable Italian influence care of background of the fest's organizers with Haik Gazarian's "Venezzia" and Francesca Archibug's "Questione di Cuore," and Marco De Luca’s "Penso Che Un Sogno Cosi"; and recent festival circuit staples like Arriga's "The Burning Plain," Chris D'Arienzo's SXSW premiere "Barry Munday," Diego Luna's "Abel," Ruba Nadda's Clarkson-starring "Cairo Time," and the Duplass Brothers' fest closer "Cyrus."
Festival director Masenza, who has worked in the film industry for over 30 years as a press agent, photographer, screenwriter, filmmaker, and as part of the Venice Film Festival's selection committee (where he still works), sat down with indieWIRE in the midst of the fest's busy first weekend to discuss his role and what he wanted to achieve.
"I was working in Venice last July, and I was asked if I was interested in being the director of a film festival in Aruba," he explained. "Eventually I came here to the island to see if Aruba was a possible place for a film festival. And I saw that there are great hotels and plenty of movie theaters. And I was really enchanted by the producers of the festival - Giuseppe Cioccarelli and Jonathan Vieira - and their enthusiasm. So I said 'okay, let's try.'"
Masenza said that so far he's been "quite happy" with the results and that he fully expects a second edition of the fest come next June. Though he also seemed quite relieved that the difficulties of a freshman year are about to be behind him.
"I would like this festival to be successful," he said. "I would like the audience to be happy, the press to be comfortable, and to gain respect from the industry. I'd also like to be able to do it in an easier way... I mean, this year's been really tough. It was hard to convince anyone to give me films and it was hard to teach the people on the island what a film festival is all about. They've never had anything like this before. These people have no experience. So probably a second year would be much easier because now they are learning. At the beginning they didn't care that much. Because the mentality of an island... People set an appointment at 10 o'clock in the morning, and they show up the next day. For them it's normal. It's the island attitude. But then after a while, I saw them quickly get into it. I mean, some of them will never work at the festival because they thought it would just be a glamorous experience. But it's not - it's hard work. But others got really into it."
Masenza also said that the festival gives young Arubians who are unable to travel a chance to be inspired by films that might be more within the realm of possibility for them as filmmakers.
"Here they are allowed the possibility to only see American blockbusters," he said. "Those are the only films that arrive here. I don't have anything against those films, but for someone that dreams to become a filmmaker, those movies aren't a big help. I mean, it's something they'll probably never be able to do. No one will invest that kind of money in Arubian films. But if they start seeing little independent film - like Marco De Luca’s film. That film was made with almost no money. People who want to make films should learn that it's possible to do it with almost nothing."