A Brief History of LUX Filmfest

in 14th Luxembourg City Film Festival

by Yun-hua Chen

LUX Filmfest stands out as one of the most welcoming film festivals globally, without a hint of exaggeration. Nestled in the charming city centre of Luxembourg, the festival takes place in key venues steeped in cinephilia, including the Cinémathèque and Ciné Utopia at the heart of the city, as well as the multiplex Kinepolis in the newer quarter of Kirchberg. Described by the festival’s artistic director, Alexis Juncosa, as a festival content with its status as a “B-tier festival,” LUX Filmfest eschews the glitz of red carpets and premieres, instead embracing a serene charm that celebrates cinema and cinephilic culture in a humble manner. Nevertheless, notable moments in its history include Terrence Malick’s Song to Song (2017) closing the festival in 2017 and Tim Burton’s Big Eyes (2014) opening it in 2015. This year, Viggo Mortensen graced the closing ceremony with his sophomore directorial film, The Dead Don’t Hurt (2023), adding to the illustrious lineup of the international jury, which included Ira Sachs as the jury president, alongside scriptwriter Nathalie Hertzberg, actors Sebastian Koch, Vicky Krieps and Arnaud Valois, and producer Marianne Slot – encounters with whom, for a quick chat about films, in the corridors of cinemas between screenings, were the most natural occurrences during the LUX Filmfest. MovieMaker magazine aptly recognised the event as one of the 25 coolest festivals in the world in 2022, lauding its intimate yet refined ambiance, and I dare to add, its gourmet taste and discerning palate as well.

The establishment of the FIPRESCI award in 2023 marked the second year of international film critics’ participation at LUX Filmfest. This initiative not only introduces international film critics to the festival but also allows local film journalists to engage with the global cinematic landscape. The local association ALPC – Association luxembourgeoise de la presse cinématographique – extended a warm invitation to the Fipresci jury members for a convivial cocktail, a commendable initiative spearheaded by its former president, Pablo Chimienti. Nearly all of the association’s approximately 20 members attended the event, embodying a spirit of warm hospitality innate in the city and at the festival.

I had a conversation with Alexis about the history of LUX Filmfest, a relatively young film festival. Its roots can be traced back to 2007 when Luxembourg was selected as the European Capital of Culture for the second time (the first being in 1995). In response to this designation, the municipality aimed to create a film festival similar to those found in other cultural capitals. Initially overseen by a French festival organization with a focus on talent and French presence, local staff members quickly realised the need for the festival to align more closely with the city’s identity and cinematic ethos, catering to a community of cinephiles who valued cinema over celebrity. The festival thus underwent a conceptual transformation in 2010, with Gladys Lazareff, the current managing director, and Alexis at the helm. They sought to spotlight Luxembourg City’s unique ecosystem, reflecting its diverse population comprising individuals from 170 nationalities, with 70% being non-Luxembourgish by nationality.

Since its inception in 2011, the festival has strived to provide a panoramic view of world cinema, foregrounding the intersection of diverse cultures and perspectives in a shared space. Recognising the growing global appeal of documentaries during that period, the festival embraced this trend and placed a strong emphasis on documentary filmmaking. To nurture local talent, particularly in light of the absence of a dedicated film school in Luxembourg, the festival introduced educational initiatives such as Luxfilmfest Campus, targeting aspiring students, and the Crème Fraîche competition, catering to young audiences aged 12 to 25 with ultra-short 90-second films and scripts. Furthermore, the festival serves as a platform for promoting Luxembourgish production and co-production through industry events such as the “rencontres” and industry days, aimed at supporting the local filmmaking community. These initiatives continue to flourish today. Since 2018, the festival has also integrated Virtual Reality, with the Virtual Reality Pavilion housed in the picturesque valley of the European Institute of Cultural Routes, a former cloister of Neumünster Abbey. This VR section has evolved significantly, transitioning from initial cardboard handcrafted VR glasses to professional VR setups, functioning not only as an exhibition space but also as a production hub, with ongoing collaborations with Montreal.

When asked about the festival’s artistic independence, Alexis emphasized that LUX Filmfest is a non-profit association, partially funded by the City of Luxembourg and the Ministry of Culture, with 55% of the budget sourced independently. The festival’s curation process remains entirely independent, with a selection committee comprising volunteers, including local journalists and producers who share a deep passion for cinema. Films are hence selected based on shared interests, consensus, and balance, which may help explain the eclectic official competition program of eight films with half of them centred on themes of grief and bereavement, prompting curiosity among attendees: Day of the Tiger (Tigru, 2023), Hoard (2023), It’s Raining in the House (Il pleut dans la maison, 2023), and Milk (Melk, 2023).

The festival owes much of its allure to influential figures who have contributed to Luxembourg’s film culture. Georges Santer, the festival’s president, previously held diplomatic posts in Beijing in the 1990s and Berlin a decade ago, among other assignments – a gracious and professional host embodying the spirit of diplomacy throughout the festival.

Jean-Pierre Thilges, a legendary film enthusiast and visionary, and a fellow FIPRESCI jury member this year, co-founded Ciné Utopia in the 1980s in a garage alongside fellow film critics. Ciné Utopia emerged during a period of crisis in global cinema, filling the void left by the closure of city-centre cinemas. Determined to establish an arthouse cinema in Luxembourg, Jean-Pierre and his friends, later dubbed the “Utopia mafia,” mobilised private funding to launch Ciné Utopia against all odds. Their commitment to arthouse cinema later evolved into Kinepolis Kirchberg, which they built in the 1990s in the newly developed area of the city, a multiplex reflecting their foresight and market understanding. Although they sold the cinemas to a Belgian company before 2016-2017, the pivotal roles that Ciné Utopia and Kinepolis Kirchberg play in the city’s film culture still resonate strongly throughout the LUX Filmfest.

As LUX Filmfest proudly navigates its path as a “B-tier festival” and Alexis recites the mantra of “with great power comes great responsibility” from Spider-Man (2002), they remain steadfast in their commitment to artistic freedom and collaboration. Each year, the festival warmly welcomes 15-20 festival directors, fostering dialogue, cooperation, and camaraderie; the Documentary Jury is composed of festival representatives exclusively. With a modest yet resolute approach and an unwavering focus on the future, LUX Filmfest is poised to continue shaping the cinematic landscape for years to come. “We will cease this endeavour on the precise day we fully comprehend what we are doing,” asserted Alexis with a playful smile.

Yun-hua Chen
Edited by Amber Wilkinson