This Screener correspondent is now back in sweltering New York City after six days at the tropical but windswept Aruba International Film Festival. On my last day in Aruba, I spoke to AIFF director Claudio Masenza, a screenwriter, journalist and former programmer for the Venice Film Festival, about the challenges of launching a new film festival on an island without one art house and where the inviting beaches offer fierce competition to his eclectic movie selections.
“We try not to do much in the mornings,” Masenza admitted, “so people can go to the beach, and then come back and go to the theatres.”
Masenza confessed to some trepidation when he first helped launch the fest in 2010 about programming for a local audience unfamiliar with international cinema (apart from a certain English-speaking behemoth up north). “I was very worried. The locals have only seen American blockbusters, big-budget films from the majors—those films open exactly the same time in Aruba. They’ve never seen foreign films. So the first year I thought I’d try it and see what happens. But the audiences read the subtitles and laughed and had a great time.
“I was very nicely surprised the first year,” he recalled. “Now I’ve started to get used to it. I come from a country, Italy, where people don’t accept subtitles. My major disappointment is that I can’t stand to watch a dubbed film. It’s doesn’t matter what the language is, I want to hear [what people sound like]. But I’m one of the few.”
Along with the international pictures Masenza selects, AIFF also features a Caribbean Spotlight Series of films from or about the Caribbean islands, programmed by documentary producer Aaron Hosé. Masenza cheerfully admitted that “the locals tend to go and see those films more than the international films.”
Masenza recalled the impact of the fest’s first screening of a local production. “A young man from Aruba made a film for $11,000. And other young people said, ‘I didn’t realize it was possible to make a film on such a low budget!’ Before that, it was just frustration, a feeling that it could never happen. Now at least they have a positive attitude, something they can dream about.”
For this visitor, a major highlight of the fest is its “In Conversation With” series, which this year featured actors Virginia Madsen, Ray Liotta and Val Lauren (star of James Franco’s Sal Mineo film), director Pim de la Parra, and an insightful tutorial with Oscar-winning editor Pietro Scalia. “Every time it’s unique,” Masenza observed. “It’s not like a film that you can watch on a screener if you can’t see it here.”
The inaugural Aruba festival in 2010 got a tremendous boost when it announced the participation of Richard Gere on opening night. “Months before the beginning of the festival, Richard said he would attend,” Masenza recalled. “We have been friends for many years. I told him, ‘It’s so far away, maybe you’ll be busy then.’ He said, ‘No, don’t worry—no matter what, I’ll be there.’ Going around to distributors and producers and talent and being able to say Richard Gere is opening the festival, it made a huge difference. Because there are so many festivals everywhere.”
Masenza’s own decision to join the Aruba fest was somewhat spontaneous. “After six years in Venice, I felt it was time to change. [Festival co-founder] Jonathan Vieira called me in Venice out of the blue—I didn’t know him at all. He said, ‘Would you like to do this?’ I said, ‘I don’t know what Aruba is.’ He said,’ It’s an island.’ I said, ‘Where is it?’ Then I said, ‘Before saying yes, I have to come and see if the theatres and the hotels are okay for organizing a film festival.’ But I really did want to do something else, I needed a different landscape.
“I’m very happy that I was able to help this festival be created,” Masenza declared. “Maybe I’ll be here for another year or two, but I don’t plan to spend many, many years. Directors come and go. Hopefully, the festival will have a much longer life than my tenure. The Venice Film Festival, where I worked for many years, isn’t the festival of somebody, it’s the Venice Film Festival. Venice is Venice.” Here’s hoping the Aruba International Film Festival finds it own enduring identity.