Number 39 Winter 2007
email us

PREVIOUS EDITIONS

print version

Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen 2006

By Michael Brown

In May 2006 I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the 52nd Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen. My short film Falling Out (2004) had been selected for the International Competition and the Festival kindly offered me a generous travel grant to attend. Crossing to the far side of the world from New Zealand entailed several long exhausting plane flights, but it was worth it. Oberhausen exceeded all expectations, both for the individual films screened and in terms of the event itself, which had an ethos and structure unlike anything on offer in Aotearoa. Here I want to take the opportunity to reflect a little on this contrast, as well as report on a few of the works I saw and interesting aspects of the Festival as a whole.

Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen is an highly-regarded annual showcase for short films (up to 45 minutes in duration), which takes place over six days in the small city of Oberhausen, located near Dusseldorf in the Nordrhein-Westfalen region of Germany. It draws together hundreds of filmmakers, writers, journalists, distributors, curators, students and other interested people from around Germany and the world, for a week of cinematic and social exchange. The Festival is the oldest short film festival in the world, established in 1954 as the Westdeutsche Kulturfilmtage (West German Educational Film Festival). According to current festival director Lars Henrik Gass, it saw itself as “a response to fascism, as an education for the people, as a ‘way to the neighbour.’"[1] This overall manifesto still remains strongly evident in the main event and also in the Festival’s off season activities, such as educational services, film distribution, touring programmes, publications and archiving.[2] The Festival’s staunchly internationalist ethos was reaffirmed in 2005 when it withdrew from the European Coordination of Film Festivals (of which it had been a founding member) in protest at the organisation’s soft stance on quotas being proposed by the European Commission for such events, which would have required that 70% of films screened had to be European in origin.

Traditionally, Oberhausen caters to avant-garde short film, with aesthetic innovation being recognised across a wide range of genres and forms. Even while the Festival hosts a major film market for distributors, the primary goal there is to celebrate the innovatory potential of a medium which, as we may be apt to forget, is little more than 100 years old and surely still ripe for exploration. As programmer Reinhard W. Wolf describes:

"Short film preserves the early diversity of the cinema, while history has increasingly forced 'big-screen cinema' into narrowly constricted boundaries. […] It would be hard to find an innovation in film aesthetics that was not first “invented” and tried out in short film. Due to a lack of the requisite knowledge and research, this fact is often overlooked in historical writing on film and in film criticism."[3]

In 2006, the International and German Competitions encompassed dramas, non-linear narratives, documentary essays, abstract collages, meta-cinematic studies, political and philosophical ruminations, personal reflections and experimental animations. There were also competitions devoted to films for children (judged by local school pupils) and music videos. Works were accepted on a wide range of formats, all impeccably projected, while each screening was followed by lengthy Q&A sessions between directors, programmers and audience members.

Oberhausen was far too extensive an event to fully describe here. I mainly attended the International Competition screenings and taken as a whole, this body of 64 films revealed a myriad of possibilities being explored in the short form. I’ll pick out a few personal highlights.

The international range of works meant that distinct regional sensibilities were sometimes evident across groups of works. A number of films from Holland and Belgium felt linked by a certain aesthetics and mood. These included The Agony of a Table and Two People (2005, dir. Marianne Theunissen, Chris Baaten), in which a couple in a tight clinch oddly vibrate their way across three Vermeer-esque interiors, or The Yellow of Ghent (2005, dir. Jos De Gruyter) which explored the ambiguous neutrality of hotel space via two bath-robed guests and a certain strain of absurdist conversation. Nevel (a.k.a. Haze, 2005, dir. Bernard Lier) was more opaque, suggesting a thriller plot on a flat battery, with prosaic fragments framed against landscapes - man cleans gun, drives in van, waits in street, walks past windmill etc. – like jigsaw pieces ingeniously shaped not to fit together. The large contingent of films from Latin America also displayed common cultural DNA, especially in fluid combinations of image and sound. Mestre Humberto (a.k.a. Master Humberto, 2005, dir. Rodrigo Savastano) traipsed through the overlapping memories of a master drummer and the atmospheric byways of Rio de Janeiro’s old downtown, while Dormente (2005, dir. Joel Pizzini) was a rapturous ballad to urban movement of a different kind - the Sao Paolo train infrastructure – resulting in perhaps the most extraordinary big-screen experience of the Festival.

Other works could be loosely grouped as cross-border investigations: encounters with the other in terms of culture, religion, geography, memory or human personality. Quid esperanza (2005), by Belgian director Stéphane Manzone, paid solemn respect to the spectacular rituals of Iberian and Italian folk Catholicism; while Ideas of Order in Cinque Terre (2005, dir. Ken Kobland) drew on the artistic thesis of American poet Wallace Stevens[4] to gracefully diagrammatise how art can impose its own order upon the chaotic nature of a subject, in this case an Italian town built in a geometric clutter up a steep hillside. A coolly-managed comment on the romantic impulse in Western art, Lancia Thema (2005, dir. Josef Dabernig) followed its director round Southern Europe taking snaps of his touristic chariot - a Lancia car - and scant notice of the historical meanings of the landscapes which formed the backdrops. The Argentine film Uyuni (2005, dir. Andrés Denegri) also played with parallels, using evocative double-exposures and a soundtrack which overlaid the bickering of a holidaying couple trapped in a Bolivian village and a radio reporting industrial unrest at nearby mines. Julia Barco’s Latitudes (2005), constructed from “lost” footage shot many years previously, had the camera eye repeatedly roaming a cavernous house past a boy practicing piano, peering down empty stairwells and through curtains, suggesting a Proustian poetics of memory. Eljko Jerman – My Mouth (2005, dir. Ivan Faktor) was edited from self-documenting footage shot by Jerman (a major Croatian artist) into a disturbingly intimate encounter with an aging and rather forlorn bohemian.

As the days progressed it became apparent that world politics was in the air at Oberhausen 2006, a trend which is evidently consistent with many past festivals. Given the mass globalisation of politics in recent years and present disastrous state of things, this was perhaps an inevitability. Politics became such a talking-point by the final evening that even the director of the Grand Prize-winning film felt compelled in his acceptance speech to describe his startling work N12º13.062’ / W001º32.619’ Extended (2005, dir. Vincent Meessen) as some kind of political allegory, although this was not directly obvious from its content. Shot at an enigmatic African location where two labourers engage in an unexplained excavation of the claylike earth, here was a spellbinding riddle about cinematic interpretation; but just as easily read as being apolitical as not.

Other works more obviously dwelt on political themes, several taking a bitterly satirical tone appropriate to the current moment. The dystopian fantasy Because of the War (2005, dir. Jennet Thomas) was presented in the style of cheap British TV, with the host glibly explaining how in spite of wartime shortages, sausages can be made to magically emerge from the ground and that for some people, war is “similar to the experience of falling in love”. The Unfinished War (I’m Very Happy) (2006) by Venezuelan dir. Zigmunt Cedinsky, depicted salvation as a swanky Third World hell, with a group of well-to-dos around a hotel swimming-pool comparing Rolexes and Cuban cigars beneath a deafening soundtrack of helicopter gunships and artillery fire.

The works I felt were most resonant with contemporary issues were those addressing political pasts and ongoing legacies. Godsberg (2005, dir. Fred Pelon) was an “experistorical” study of how a Dutch fascist rally-ground from the 1930s has managed to survive as a family campsite with most of its uncanny architecture still in place. In the radical spirit of Jean Genet and Georges Bataille, Two Women and a Man (2005) had director Roee Rosen assume the persona of the fictitious Jewish-Belgian pornographic artist “Justine Frank” (supposedly active among the French surrealists and in Zionist Palestine), creating a transgressive tour-de-force which dared to insinuate a masturbatory undertone to Israel’s political self-image.[5] Several films drew more conventional, but no less fascinating routes through the history lessons of the 20th Century. The prize-winning documentary Toi, Waguih (2005) had director Namir Abdel Messeeh gently ask his Egyptian-born father about the apparent discrepancy between (a) being tortured for his radical beliefs by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s secret police in the 1960s, and (b) retiring in Paris as a trusted corporate employee. A pointed essay on the decline of the Iranian left-wing, Tropical Modernism (2005, dir. Tirdad Zolghadr) was presented by Dr. Golmahammad Rahati in the style of an anthropological study, concluding with his own marginal status as a Marxist dissident.

Political discussions at the Festival were generated not only by the frisson between works in competition and contemporary events. An important catalyst was the keynote series Radical Closure: Send me to the seas of love, I’m drowning in my own blood, curated by Lebanese artist/writer Akram Zaatari.[6] In 11 programmes about “situations of closures resulting from wars and/or territorial conflicts [in the Middle East]”[7], Zaatari juxtaposed shorts, gallery works, video documentation, hostage tapes, missile-cam footage and other material dating between 1963 and 2004. The first programme was a rare screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s Ici et Ailleurs (1974), which examined how political discourse was represented in footage taken in al-Fatah guerilla training camps in Palestine. Godard himself had shot the footage a few years earlier to document the Palestinian struggle, but in Ici et Ailleurs he took a more critical stance, seeking to understand “why the discourse of resistance is often communicated in pompous slogans, delivered in a theatrical way […] facilitated by the logic of spectacular live TV coverage and news.”[8] Fundamentally, Godard was insisting on the need to interrogate images and image making rather than simply accept the process and product at face value. In effect this became Zaatari’s own dictum in Radical Closure as he grappled with the ways moving images address “questions of borders, closures, wars and the question of the militarization of public life, rising ideologies and the oppression of the diversity of political beliefs and religions, misery belts around cities, and the building of walls.”[9] One particular strength of his approach was not only dealing directly with the effects and visual rhetoric of political agency, but also with how continuities of domestic and personal life bridge the shadows of war. Zaatari gave his ideas in detailed catalogue notes and essays, but was also a personal presence at the Festival, being invariably on hand to introduce every session, answer questions and moderate post-screening discussions.

One basic lesson of Radical Closure was its practical demonstration of how short film can remain topical and relevant beyond its own era, whether for aesthetic, historical or political reasons. Podium panel discussions which took place every morning at the Festival produced a complementary sense of short film as a living, evolving form, capable of permeating onto the internet and television, into art galleries and the education system, changing meaning (and sometimes shape) with each new habitat. All these various facets of the Festival event combine in creating what Daniel Kothenschulte has identified as the special value of Oberhausen:

“What is art? What is theatre? What is film? We have become used to resorting to agency contexts when we answer that question. Art is what the art museums present, theatre is what’s performed on the stages, and film is what’s screened in the movie theatres. This simple rule will go a long way on the practical level. It reminds us that the definition of art has nothing to do with its quality. It cannot, however, explain the short film, because that has no home. […] Since the 1980s, if not earlier… the significance of this festival lies in its production of context.” (Frankfurter Rundschau, 11/5/2006)

This Festival is an important site for discourses of short film to be articulated; for a kind of cultural memory to be made tangible; and for the short form to generate a sense of tradition.

Oberhausen 2006 left me pondering the current situation in New Zealand. I was told by selectors that only a handful of films from New Zealand had ever screened at Oberhausen and they were curious to see more work from our part of the world. In light of this I would recommend that local filmmakers make the effort to submit their films to this inspirational event and have the chance to experience what I’ve been talking about. But I also wonder just how well prepared we are here to grasp the intellectual parameters.

To be sure, short film has several homes in this country: screenings at the Moving Image Centre (MIC) and New Zealand Film Archive (NZFA), plus the annual round-ups of the Fringe Festival and New Zealand International Film Festivals (NZIFF). While all such events – together with the recent LOOP compilation DVDs and several New Zealand film websites – cater for the basic delivery of short films to audiences, there are really no interpretative frameworks here that are comparable with what Oberhausen provides. Screening opportunities are not what short filmmakers lack in New Zealand, nor is financial support really, given that the relative inexpensiveness of the short form is what underwrites its artistic freedom – as with poetry, short film can exist free from marketplace concerns. However, there is currently very little critical discourse about short film in New Zealand (observations to this effect have been made in the pages of Illusions by Martin Rumsby and Kathy Dudding).[10] In the absence of such a discourse, shorts in New Zealand have in the main come to be pigeon-holed as stepping stone training exercises for rookie professionals, entertaining squibs or, via the 48 Hour Film contest, symbols of over-hyped national ingenuity.

It can also be observed that there is virtually no programming along the lines of Akram Zaatari’s Radical Closure at any of our feature film festivals or film institutions, across either short or long length films.[11] As imported DVDs become more accessible, satellite-TV gains in popularity, more cinema screens are built and a profusion of festivals and mini-festivals dot the annual calendar, the patterns of programming provided by our stalwart institutions of film culture seem to be slowly but surely becoming subsumed into the general cultural wallpaper. Original curatorial projects could add a distinctive new dimension to local film culture by providing original interpretations of our moving image heritage according to some relevant theme. Along with the accompanying written material and discussions, screenings would assist in providing a platform for the discourse about film which we currently seem to lack, bringing cultural, social and political histories into relief for public audiences. At heart, such events aim to make sense of the profusion of moving images rather than merely piling more on. Establishing a modest residency with this outcome in mind - involving one or more of the NZFA, MIC, NZIFF or university film departments - would be a productive first step in fostering some of the ideals practiced so successfully at Oberhausen. Many of those writing for Illusions would be obvious contenders for steering this proposed venture in critical interpretation.

Notes

1. Gass, 52. Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen Festivalkatalog (2006), p.11. The motto “way to the neighbour” (Weg zum Nachbarn) dates from 1958. A brief history and chronology of the festival can be found on their website: www.kurzfilmtage.de

2. Oberhausen also produces an excellent Internet magazine ‘Shortfilm.de’. Subscription is available through the website.

3. Quoted from Reinhard W. Wolf’s summation of the history, possibilities and theoretical parameters of short film, “What is cinema – what is short film?” (2006). Online URL: <http://www.kurzfilmtage.de/ikf/index.php?id=2645&L=2> [accessed December 2006]

4.See Stevens’s poem “The Idea of Order at Key West” in The Palm at the End of the Mind, New York: Vintage Books, 1990, pp.97-98.

5. Two Men and a Women was awarded a Special Mention by the International Jury.

6. In addition to Radical Closure, Oberhausen 2006 hosted several retrospective screenings, including a major series devoted to Robert Nelson.

7. Zaatari, Festivalkatalog, p.81.

8. Op. cit., p.82.

9. Ibid.

10. Martin Rumsby, “A Place Near Here”, Illusions, no.35, winter 2003, pp.15-20; Kathy Dudding, “Looking for the Fringe: A Mentor’s Notes”, op. cit., pp.12-14.

11. With this statement, I am not counting any of the relatively straightforward series on individual filmmakers which appear regularly at festivals and institutions. Nor am I including gallery exhibitions incorporating moving image works, which tend to follow the agendas of the art world. Only a few of the touring programmes provided by the Goethe Institute achieve more ambitious levels of interpretation in a screening context.