Crystal clear waters begin to glisten and pulsate against the towering buildings along the crescent coastline. The Atlantic is welcoming to guests and residents of nearly forty cultures. It is a diverse and beautiful island so it is of no surprise that Aruba is hosting its first ever International Film Festival.
When Aruba decided to peruse the notion of a festival, they decided on recruiting Claudio Mazzenga, a charismatic man whom has helped oversee such esteemed festivals as the Venice and Rome Film Festivals. To make a successful festival, the industry veteran knew that the journey would include choosing the right films and most importantly bringing Hollywood with the local community, which similarly minded celebrities, like his long time friend Richard Gere.
During a local open discussion entitled “In Conversation With..” which highlights an artist’s body of work and interaction with the festival, Gere appeared very humble taking in the amount of appreciation the mainly Dutch population had for him. Gere addressed questions about his humanitarian efforts and the daunting challenge of being a first time producer for “Hachiko: A Dog’s Tale”, the Opening Night film. His attendance helped propel the festival in the right direction. Afterwards drinks were poured and bare feet danced as the eagerly awaited film festival showed a strong start.
After experiencing the rich nightlife, the island’s tropical lushness always helps weary travelers rejuvenate for their next experience. The Hyatt Regency Aruba rests on a exclusive part of the island, right where the beach begins to crescent westward. This curve makes the waters calm and generally untouched by weather. The Atlantic Ocean’s color pulsates with blue and greens, and the finely grained sand is a welcome feeling to the skin.
Not to be unmatched, the Hyatt’s elaborate pool area boasted enough amenities such as bar cabanas, poolside dining, a twisting waterside, and sunbathed mermaids that this traveler could hardly decide where to spend many mornings. Lost between the pleasures of each, the sun begins to settle as the festival comes into full swing.
Crowds of Arubans turned up for the nightly red carpet events located at the Paseo Herencia Cinema positioned across from the resorts. Local news and radio personalities hosted the event and constantly switched between English and Spanish. Applause filled the area as festival goers welcomed the cast of “Venezzia,” a love story centered during the country’s involvement in World War II. The island of Aruba related to the story, since the oil used during the war by the Venezuelans were drilled off the coast only a few miles away. The cast included Latin TV star Ruddy Rodriguez, who shared in the belief that a festival in Aruba can help bridge the gap between Hollywood and Latin America. His hope is that the commanding beauty and adventure here will bring visitors, and hopefully will expose them to diverse cultures of the surrounding countries; including Venezuela.
The positive vibe of the locals and incumbent travelers echoed during the film’s screening and continued next door to Mr. Jazz, where moviegoers were treated to luscious mojitos and salsa dancing. The encompassing themed night showed just a taste of how, with each day, the festival would embrace a different aspect of the island; whether it be Island Chic or American influence.
Five miles south of the premiere resort area rests a secluded cove that offers hands-on experience with aquatic life for novice mariners. De Palm Island offers snorkeling through vibrant reefs, thrilling banana boat rides, and a very unique attraction; the Sea Trek underwater walk. New to many weary outsiders the walk utilizes snuba: a variation of scuba diving where a helmet piped to the surface allows one to walk on the ocean floor 25 feet below. Underneath the diver feels a sense of slow-motion weightless as snapper and rainbow fish approach unafraid. The experience takes some getting used to, but with trained divers escorting guests through the maze and simultaneously photographing the whole event in front of real wreckage, this excursion would be a highlight for any thrill enthusiast.
Before returning to the film festival. patrons congregated in the beautiful open air hotel lobby of the Hyatt to embark on a De Palm off-road safari. The first thought inclined that this would be a gentle excursion along the beaches mainly because anyone was allowed to drive. Waivers were signed, and the visitors boarded five yellow and black-striped Land Rovers. What was to followed threw all previous expectations out the window.
After a quick drive over the asphalt jungle of the upscale resort area, the rovers embarked into the rocky desolate desert terrain located on the northern part of the island. The strong easterly winds prevent architects from building alongside the picturesque oceanside vistas, which include natural bridges, veering rock formations, and towering cacti.
The 4 1/2 hour drive included more turns and bumps that rivaled any American theme park ride, and with the added flavor of the local tour guide that pitched us information with humorous undertones, the eventual consensus among the riders was that this safari was a not-to-miss attraction. The final uphill trek atop a lone mountain peppered with lizards and local goats ended with a much deserved dip in Aruba’s captivating natural pool. Looking at the diversity of Aruba’s terrain one could imagine how it would influence local and international filmmakers to shoot there.
That evening, the festival event is shrouded in black ties and flowing dresses. An orange glow pulsates throughout Paseo Herencia as writer/director Guillermo Arriaga takes the stage. The Oscar lauded writer of “21 Grams” and “Babel” attended to host a screening of “The Burning Plain,” his directorial debut starring Charlize Theron. The film revolves around the themes of regret, escape and infidelity using a non-linear structure that links all three storylines together. As a Mexican writer, Arriaga is no stranger to the clashing of American influence on foreign culture. He seemed very pleased by the the large turnout for a culture as diverse as Aruba.
The final night, marking the end of the first half of the festival, encompasses belly dancers, fine champagne and a rich view of the pristine star filled sky that only an island paradise can offer. An inaugural festival is always a tricky feat to attempt but the eagerness and the sheer exhilaration of all who attended the 1st Annual Aruba International Film Festival show its definitive potential to make it work in the long run.
By Paul Wassberg