Earthly (Opposite to the Sky)
Each year, the German city of Oberhausen hosts one of the longest-lived (if not the longest) short film festivals in the world. Alongside Clermont-Ferrand, Kraków Film Festival, Tempere and the Odense International Film Festival, Oberhausen is among the high-ranking film festivals in which solely short films are showcased. Even though there’s a distinct attention paid to local German cinema, particularly in both their German Competition and in their NRW (North Rhine-Westphalia) Competition, the festival prides itself for having been in the forefront of the international festival scene for nearly six decades and for their broad diversity in programing. Initially the festival was called the West German Educational Film Festival and later known simply as the West German Short Film Festival until 1991 when it was renamed International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, as we know it today. This year, the festival took place from May 11 to the May 16. The festival’s International Competition received around 5,000 entries from about 90 different countries and yet national and cultural diversity is not the only quality of the Oberhausen competition.
Oberhausen’s sharp focus on diversity in form and style within the short film format is perhaps the strongest feat in its programing. It’s clear that short films have a long history of questioning the forms and aesthetics of their feature-length counterparts. So maybe shorts that challenge narrative structures and stress their formal elements like the ones highlighted in this article are not particularly surprising for that fact. And yet, these films are still absolutely invigorating.
In one of the most compelling movies at Oberhausen, filmmaking duo Sofia Lena Monardo and Ivan Jose Murgic Capriotti render a celestial portrait of an Andean village in south Argentina called Junín de Los Andes (the location of which is first abstractly revealed as coordinates against a black screen). The film is titled Terrenal (En oposición al cielo) or Earthly (Opposite to the Sky) in English. And while Terrenal relies heavily on deserted shots of the bleak, cold landscapes of Patagonia perfectly framed, static and breathtakingly wide, it follows a few characters along the way. A working-class middle aged woman serves as our surrogate to the mortal world: there’s a man who picks up fasting dogs in his truck for a veterinarian’s office, there are armed men walking around in military uniform, kids playing soccer… all sharing in common the town in which they exist. But the connections between these characters and elements are as vast as the land they are all standing on. Monaro and Capriotti frame their film as if we were looking down at earth from some sort of natural authority. Heavenly shots from the mountain tops help convey this feeling. But the effect is haunting rather than liberating. The result is a breathtaking visual topography, aesthetically simple and complex in its poetry.
Equally haunting but far more daring is Josef Dabering’s stark black and white film Stabat Mater. It’s obvious from his short film that Dabering, who is already an established visual artist, is immensely familiar with conceptual space and architecture. Much like Dabering’s installation work (minimalist sculpture/installations comparable to the likes of Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd), Stabat Mater consists a lot of textural contrasts and simple spatial structures. The film takes place in essentially two locations: on the one hand the there’s a hotel dining hall where characters come in and out like in a play—staged and silent, everyone is hardly engaging with each other, they are distracted with their phones, tablets, make-up, and toys. On the other hand, there are empty shots of a rocky coast. By juxtaposing both locations, Dabering creates a staggering visual contrast only to later shatter it and reveal that both locations really exist in the same space.
Furthermore, there’s a third location, although not in any visual sense. There’s a detailed narration that tells a haunting fable of a man named Klaus whose farm in South America suffers from draught and in Klaus’ desperation, he asks a local bruja who has the supernatural gift to invoke rain. She does so but brings a seven-day storm that floods his entire barn. The story is beautifully written by Bruno Pellandini and captivatingly voiced by Andreas Patton, adding another contrasting layer to the mix. The visual simplicity of the hotel dining room and the coastal rocks are conflicted by the heavily detailed and novelistic narration. Together, these spaces and textures are contextualized and render a poignant lyrical study of how humans relate to one another, the space they exist in and perhaps even the stories they tell.
How to Reach God Through Proper Exercising
Another architecturally aware film is the amusingly titled How to Reach God Through Proper Exercising by Mexican filmmaker and video artist Gabriel Herrera Torres. Torres, who happens to live between Poland and Mexico, sets his hilariously dry and intriguing short in Poland within the facilities of a large men-only gymnasium. Torres carefully frames the gymnasium accentuating geometrical structures, parallel lines and compositions all while avoiding close-ups or obvious inserts. Instead, people are shot behind objects, within natural frames or in the edge of the frame with plenty of negative space. In one of the most amusing and clever shots in the film, Torres sets his camera in an indoor track field and we see people’s bent shadows projected on the tracks’ bleachers as the runners sprint back and forth the track.
The short centers on a group of adult men getting ready to exercise and yet ironically we hardly see anyone exercising—instead they talk about exercising. “A good team is a well-dressed team," one man says to his friend, as if the actual physical act of exercise was the last thing on their minds.More strikingly and perhaps more humorous however is the time these men spend telling each other about their dreams. They describe it all more or less the same over and over: their loved ones turn into inanimate objects of either green or red color and then they then complain they suffer a medical condition where they can’t distinguish green from red. The absurdity of their dream is matched by the absurdity of repetitiveness. But repetitiveness constitutes a great deal of what exercise is about. In other words, they repeat their exercises as they repeat their telling of their dreams. There’s some obvious wry humor and wit in How to Reach God, but ultimately it’s the film’s approach on space and movement that makes the film truly a unique piece of art.
Ayo Akingbade’s three-minute video poem Tower XYZ is stylistically unlike any of the rest of the films discussed here. Shot on high-contrast color film, Akingbade opts for handheld shots, jerky camera work, film flares and unconstrained editing. Yet this does not mean it’s any less constructed or carefully composed as Terrenal or How to Reach God Through Proper Exercising. On the contrary, Akingbade’s film might play like a music video but there are some hard-hitting notes that require careful attention.
Tower XYZ begins with two black women sitting down on a stage against a red backdrop, one of them holds a sliced watermelon and smiles. This image quickly triggers some deliberate notions on race representation right from the start. But then, as an electronic soundtrack fills the screen, we move on to shots of London streets where three young women of color walk around, playing around with tires and a supermarket cart like children. Akingbade hints at some socio-economic questions as we hear a poetic narration in which a woman’s voice repeats the verse "let's get rid of the ghetto” like a spoken word mantra. The short ends as a black man in a suit walks across a soccer field and picks up a sign that reads “All is well” and smiles, echoing the first scene yet leaving us deeply unsure of whether or not it is genuine or complete irony. As simple as Akingbade’s film might appear, there are intricate ideas on race and representation at work.
Strange Says the Angel
Another film that stylistically stands out from the group is Shalimar Preuss’ Strange Says the Angel. Preuss’ film focuses on a family (Preuss casts a real family to play each part) through the point of view of a seven-year-old girl named Nina played by Nina Iratchet (undoubtedly the best performance in the film). Nina and her family appear to be vacationing near a lake when news breaks about water contamination. It seems serious, but we only know as much as Nina knows. Preuss keeps us on the same level as the young girl. Nina is at an age when she begins to be aware of her place in the world, she jokes about being her father’s lover and wishes she was her older sister’s daughter. There’s a deep sadness that surrounds her, perhaps the natural melancholy evoked by childhood.
Employing a far more classic tone, Preuss directs her actors with a more familiar and organic approach, extracting some intricate performances and create an exceptionally natural chemistry on screen. There’s an overall aura of naturalness in Strange Says the Angel, enhanced not only by the films’ performances but by its sublime use of natural light.
It would be too easy to think of these films together as simply a survey on diversity in form and style among contemporary short filmmaking. There are nuanced connections to be found and intricate threads that weave them together. The use of space seems to be a common thread here. Whether it is the way the characters relate to the places they inhabit or the way the camera takes in a location, there’s a conscious decision to include that particular space as an essential element. From the vast landscapes of Patagonia to the bland interior of a hotel dining hall, these locations play an essential role.
But regardless of connections between these shorts, there’s an overall intention to rethink the short film format. And for an era when short form “content” appears to be overflowing our visual mediums, careful curation like the kind in Oberhausen is highly gratifying. Needless to say, it’s not easy to program short films, they are too often jammed into hour-long programs all chaotically playing off one another. It’s hard enough to just make a selection out of 5,000, but then to contextualize them and present them in a way that is worthy and in a way that can complement the film, that is astounding.