In an economy where long-running festivals are struggling, the Aruba International Film Festival had a solid inaugural run. “For the first year, I think it’s a success,” says one of the festival’s founders, Guiseppe Coioccarelli.

The festival closes tonight with the Duplass brothers’ Cyrus starring John C Reilly and Marisa Tomei, followed by a Carnival-themed closing party to follow.

The new festival on this Caribbean island (17 miles north of Venezuela, part of the lesser Antilles) was the brainchild of Giuseppe Cioccarelli, a veteran line producer who moved to Aruba three years ago, and Jonathan Vieira, a local music and TV producer. (The pair run Aruba Film Production and hope to shoot an international-leaning feature film on the island in 2011.)

They quickly roped in well-known veteran Claudio Masenza (previously a programmer for Venice, now for Rome) to serve as festival director. Masenza also helped recruit star power to the event by calling on his old friend Richard Gere to open the festival.

Gere took a very quick break from shooting Michael Brandt’s US-set spy The Double to accept the Golden Aruba Award and presented his film Hachiko on opening night. He said during Aruba’s first red carpet event, “I’m very moved since I’ve been here to see what it means to local people. It’s an extraordinary beginning.”

“Being in an island isn’t so easy to organise something at the international level,” says Cioccarelli, who points out logistical issues such as the red carpet initially being stuck in transit in Panama. “And one of our goals was to welcome the foreign press at the right level. So that was one of my concerns.”

Nikki Parker and her team at Rogers & Cowan were integral to the establishment and organisation of the first festival, bringing their international experience from other festivals such as Edinburgh to Zurich.

The festival didn’t have much of an industry presence, but did offer visits and on-stage conversations with Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who grew up in Aruba), actress Patricia Clarkson, in support of Cairo Time, and actor/director Griffin Dunne premiering his short Veronica. Bernardo Bertolucci had been due to attend to accept the Golden Aruba Award, but he couldn’t travel to the island due because of health reasons.

Other guests included Mexican writer-director Guillermo Arriaga presenting The Burning Plain; director Marco De Luca and stars Paolo Stella and Marina Rocco from Italian low-budget film Penso Che Un Sogno Cosi; Olivier Lecot (director) and Fanny Valette (actor) from A NY Thing; and Ferzan Ozpetek for Loose Cannons.

The festival also welcomed the team behind Indian smash hit 3 Idiots for its popular Bollywood Day. Famed Bollywood choreographer Longinus Fernandes held a workshop as well.

The programme this year included about 30 films. Masenza says: “I think that I have to consider that the local audience only sees American blockbusters, so I couldn’t do too many really tough movies. I have to test the audience here. But I also wanted the international audience and the international press, because that will help the people in Aruba who want to be filmmakers. It’s very important that they [local film-makers] start seeing different kind of films, these are the kinds of films they could make.”

This year showcased several Italian films, and Masenza says that he’d like to spotlight other countries in coming years. “I’m planning for future festivals to concentrate on one European country each year, these are films that would never be seen in Aruba usually. It’s another opportunity to see how other films are being made around the world.”

For now, the festival is non-competitive. “We have to learn to walk before we learn to run,” Cioccarelli notes.

The local government has committed to support the event for three years. Next year, Cioccarellialso says that they’d like to increase offerings of South American movies. This year, local crowds were especially keen to see Venezuela-set melodrama Vennezzia directed by Haik Gazarian. “We are trying to cover both sides (industry and public), we found time before the festival to go on local TV to explain it was not for tourists only, it’s also for the locals,” Cioccarelli says. “I’m not sure if we completely achieved this task in the first year. Going forward, we’d like to have more local people involved.”