Zombies and other creatures of the night will be stalking Neuchâtel this week as the city hosts its fifth International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF).
Star guests attending this year’s event include veteran Hollywood director Terry Gilliam and Japanese horror meister Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
From humble beginnings the festival, which has never shied away from blood and gore, has established itself as the European capital for horror, sci-fi and action movies.
This year it could even be argued that the event has finally joined the ranks of respectability, bearing as it does an official stamp of approval from the Federal Culture Office, which is funding the festival for the first time.
"We had to convince the Culture Office that we had left behind the dross of old fantastic films and that we had a truly modern vision that would survive the test of time, centred on rich artistic and cultural diversity," said the festival’s founder and president, Olivier Müller.
"Five years ago they thought the fantastic genre was simply films like Scream and Star Wars. Gradually we have been able to show them that this is not what we are about – and in the end they believed us."
By providing SFr40,000 ($31,000) this year (SFr50,000 in 2006 and 2007) out of a total budget of SFr450,000, the government has given the festival a much-needed shot in the arm.
The NIFFF forms part of the European Federation of Fantastic Film Festivals, which groups ten events. Each festival – others include Brussels, Luxembourg and Sitges in Spain – awards a "Silver Méliès each year to the film of its choice. And the winners all meet in Neuchâtel to battle it out for the "Golden Méliès".
That the sleepy western Swiss city now finds itself under the European spotlight has come as something of a shock to many people, including Müller.
"There has rarely been any ambition in Neuchâtel to do anything that reaches out beyond the local area," he told swissinfo. "If the NIFFF can help put the city on the map and show people that it’s not just a place of pretty green pastures but a living city with a university and cultural events, then that’s also important."
Müller maintains that the desire for the festival to push back the boundaries has always been there.
"That’s why we are called the "International" Fantastic Film Festival. We also straightaway wanted to get our message across in French, German and English," he said.
"We began with a programme that was pretty specialised because we knew that we wouldn’t gain any credibility if we just appealed to the masses. First, we needed to attract those in the know – the journalists and the fans. And it’s they who have given the festival credibility, simply by word of mouth."
Even so, the festival’s infrastructure remains modest: all the films are being shown in the three-screen Apollo cinema. But that will change from next year as the organisers are aiming to put up an open-air screen down by the lake.
At the heart of the festival lie the competitions. This year’s international competition is bringing together ten feature films from eight different countries and "encompasses the whole range of the genre".
There is also the "New Cinema from Asia" competition, which aims to open a window on fantastic films from that continent, covering as many nations as possible. Films from Thailand, Japan, the Philippines and South Korea are being shown.
Short films will also be much in evidence, with separate competitions for European and Swiss movies.
"The fantastic genre in Switzerland doesn’t stretch very far... But since the interpretation of 'fantastic’ is pretty broad, we have reached out to include films that aren’t strictly gore or science fiction," said Mélanie Cornu, who is responsible for the Swiss section.
This year’s festival will also see a number of notable premieres including Godzilla Final Wars by Japanese director Ryuhei Kitamura and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by the American Garth Jennings.
There is also a retrospective, entitled "Invaders from Marx", with 16 films from the former Soviet Union shot between 1936 and 1985.
And then there are the big-name guests: Ryuhei Kitamura, his compatriot Kiyoshi Kurosawa and former Monty Python Terry Gilliam. Nicolas Roeg, who made Performance with Mick Jagger, is president of the international jury.
swissinfo, Bernard Léchot
The 5th NIFFF runs from June 28-July 3.
Screenings take place at the Apollo cinema, while the awards ceremonies are held at the Théâtre du Passage.
Around 70 films are being shown.
The event, which receives funding from the Federal Culture Office, has a budget of SFr450,000.
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