State of the Festival: International Film Festival Oberhausen 2021

A long-lasting legacy meets streaming in a storied festival's latest edition.
Ela Bittencourt

Relativity (1966)

My long-awaited first visit to the International Film Festival Oberhausen was canceled last year, due to the pandemic, so I was thrilled to finally experience the festival this year, albeit via streaming. The 67th edition took place in a dual format, online and with somewhat expanded in-person screenings in Oberhausen (though the online offerings themselves were ample). Founded in 1954, Oberhausen played a decisive role in fostering avant-garde and experimental filmmaking during the Cold War, when much of Eastern Europe suffered the brunt of censorship. It wasn’t uncommon for films that remained unscreened or were banned in their native countries to premiere and win prizes at Oberhausen, and so be saved from critical and public oblivion. 

Given its longstanding legacy, it was invigorating to see Oberhausen bring a wide-ranging historical perspective to its online platform. Such emphasis helped avoid a common pitfall at other, more industry-driven festivals, whose online presence often feels like a meager extension of the marketing, premiere buzz, centered on latest trends and movies, with no sense of film traditions. Oberhausen was the opposite, with varied, carefully contextualized sidebars, putting it more in line with the vanguard online programs such as Berlinale Forum and Berlinale Forum Expanded. It’s also notable that Oberhausen highlights exclusively short and medium-length films (the longest I saw were under 40 minutes), affirming the form’s inherent potential. This is in contrast to a good number of festivals where short-film programs often don’t get the same attention as feature-length ones, or serve as springboards for talented young filmmakers.

My historical (re)discoveries were myriad. The four-film Amos Vogel (1921-2012) program, for example—part of the “re-selected” series, in collaboration with Arsenal Institute of for Film and Video Art in Berlin—commemorated the American curator and critic’s taboo-defying contributions to Oberhausen’s programming, and featured Ed Emshwiller’s rare, ecstatic, viscera-driven Relativity (1966), apparently deemed “pornographic” the first time it screened at the festival. “Solidarity,” a fantastic multi-screening online program of experimental films from former Yugoslavia, organized by guest curators Branka Benčić and Aleksandra Sekulić, gave the online audience a chance to catch up on such household avant-garde names as Tomislav Gotovac, the Oho Group, Neša Paripović and Sanja Iveković (I had seen fragments of Iveković’s performance, Personal Cuts, 1982, in which she intercuts fragments of television propaganda and news with her scissoring out holes in a nylon mask covering her face, and Paripović’s N.P. 1977, which documents his continuous walk and climbs over city walls, but now could finally appreciate them in their entirety, online). Meanwhile, the Collectif Jeune Cinéma program, dedicated to the collective formed in Paris in 1971with films that stressed both cinema’s materialist basis (as in Jacques Curty’s rigorous Midnight, 1984) as well as performative elements (e.g. Pierre Bressan’s wonderful oneiric Lamentations, 1977) further set the stage for the formal diversity of the international competition shorts. Historical framing was also manifest in programs devoted to some of the leading video and experimental film movements, collectives and distributors in existence since the late 1960-70s—including Berlin’s Arsenal (with Harun Farocki’s Vietnam: Before Your Eyes screen tests [1982] and Ingo Kratisch and Lothar Schuster’s portrait featuring an earlier interview with the filmmaker, Harun Farocki – Take Two [2019]), Paris’s Light Cone, London’s LUX, Rochester’s Visual Studies Workshop (which highlighted Robert Frank), Stockholm’s Filmform, Chicago’s Video Data Bank and Toronto’s Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre. 

Oberhausen’s rich contextual framework made me attentive to how film history informed some of the films across the six international competition programs. This was despite the fact that the international online selection committee—which this year consisted of the Oberhausen programmer Hilke Doering, guest curators Greg de Cuir Jr., Javier Estada and filmmaker Christiane Büchner—stressed that their focus was on highlighting individual films rather than identifying overriding themes, such as history or technology—though Doering also mentioned the committee’s attentiveness to formal approaches best suited to streaming. 

Copia de la Copia (de la copia) (2020)

Among the standouts, Rafal Morusiewicz’s Copia de la Copia (de la copia) (2020) compiles footage of Polish communist-era movies—including Krzysztof Kieslowski’s No End and Piotr Szulkin’s dystopian sci-fi filmsin order to queer them, as the director notes in the pre-recorded Q & A. Morusiewicz splices disparate shot and reverse shots creating a new filmic space where the repressed and unseen is made visible. Morusiewicz’s sensual fête comes at a time when Eastern Europe’s populist governments stir virulent anti-LGBTQ hatred. In this sense, Morusiewicz frames cinema’s true value in its textural openness to reinterpretation.

Gugnam Gugnam vs Guni Guni / Rumi vs Phantasm (2020)

In Khvan de la Cruz’s thunderous new short, Gugnam Gugnam vs Guni Guni / Rumi vs Phantasm (2020), Filipino preschoolers, Katch23 and 1delacruz, roam the streets in pandemic masks (one of the rare references to Covid-bound production time). Though I don’t think that de la Cruz had Vera Chytilová’s Daisies (1966) in mind as a direct antecedent for his whimsical short on proverbs, language, and human nature, his film, with abundant jump cuts, swirling locations, mosaic-like composition and anarchic spirit, elicited in me a dizzying feeling of déjà vu, while pulsating with its own postmodern, punk energy. 

Nina Kurtela’s Dear Aki (2021), in the form of a letter to the director Aki Kaurismäki, invents an installation around a sign, Dubrovnik, featured in Kaurismäki’s Drifting Clouds. In Under the Shadow of Azkorri (2020), the director Eszter Katalin uses the image of a red rose from the film, Red Psalm (1972), by the Hungarian director Miklos Jancsó, to query communist symbology and its re-signification when used during LGBTQ protests. Katalin particularly dedicates the film to the murdered Russian LGBTQ activist Yelena Grigoryeva, who held the red-rose symbol in her palm at a protest, and then stages her own photo with the rose, and records it in Grigoryeva’s honor. Performance, film, politics and art also merge in The Light of Day (2020), a film in which director Alex Eisenberg and Anne Bean celebrate the feminist activist and experimental filmmaker and performer Jeanette Iljon, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. 

Memory Also Die (2020)

In one scene, Iljon (whose work I did not know previously, a humbling reminder of how much there always is to learn) marvels in awe at seeing her young self on the screen—cinema’s time machine gifting her back her own image and history. It’s a poignant metaphor for what this year’s online Oberhausen has managed to achieve. A message reiterated in Didi Cheeka’s Memory Also Die (2020), a powerful silent archival footage film that played in the Arsenal program, centered on the Biafran War, with remembering as both a sociopolitical necessity and a collective “strategy for survival, a resistance against the threat of forgetting.”

Like it or not, how we experience an online festival also comes down to the streaming platform’s functionality and to viewing logistics. I appreciated Oberhausen’s settling somewhere at midpoint, between exclusivity and ease of access, with some limitations (e.g. a 48-hour window to catch individual online programs), but also flexibility within each program—for example, with an option to “screen all,” and so access the films in a pre-determined order, with a pre-recorded comment from each director at the end, or to skip around at will, and forego the directors’ comments (I did a bit of both, varying from program to program). 

In the pre-recorded comments some filmmakers stressed that they didn’t think of their shorts as “pandemic films.” In this sense, although Büchner mentioned that it did feel like there may have been more films this year focusing on technology, AI and simulation, this may merely mean that the pandemic has brought into sharp relief a trend that has been already going on for years, with our daily existence increasingly merging with AI. What it means to be human in such a context was a recurrent theme. In the central scene in Vytautas Plukas and Domas Petronis’s Ieva (2021), a dog barks at a robot that resembles a wane young woman, baring its teeth. It’s not clear if the robot stares too inexpressively or too intently, or if the dog barks because she/it doesn’t smell or look convincingly human. As viewers, we’re never deceived about the robot’s non-human identity. Nevertheless, the dog’s defensive reaction imbues the scene with a certain foreboding about the ways that AI alters our own “natural” world. 

my favorite software is being here (2020)

In Alison Nguyen’s my favorite software is being here (2020), a virtual personal assistant and data cleaner speaks to viewers in an intimate voice, a bit as in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013). The ingenuity of Nguyen’s AI tale is how vividly this simulated consciousness is tied to our own, channeling an eerily human ennui. Markers of consumption (a potato chips bag, etc.) are everywhere, suggesting the extent to which our tastes carry over into the virtual worlds. In fact, as Nguyen’s and other shorts this year suggest, the most frightful thing about AI might be that it has consistently proven to be simply too human.

I’m Disguised Right in Front of You (2020)

Some shorts envision AI as a dystopian political agent. In Zhu Changquan's I’m Disguised Right in Front of You (2020), an algorithm disguised as the computer avatar of a “one-hundred eye” monkey, urges viewers “to tear up all things sturdy.” The algorithm prophesies a new world order that sounds like a random conspiratorial thread on Facebook, with nihilist overtones. In his Q & A, which rather appropriately, was a series of computerized messages, Changquan explained that he lives near the headquarters of Alibaba Cloud of Alibaba, the cloud computing hub in China, which spurred him to envision a leap beyond our carbon-based life.

In the sober Adversarial Infrastructure (2020), Anna Engelhardt uses a computer-graphic simulation, spliced with television news reports, to flesh out Russia’s building of the Crimea Bridge as what she coins “adversarial infrastructure,” aka a territorial colonizing tool. Words like “aggression” and “violence” popped up throughout this festival edition, suggesting that filmmakers are increasingly weary of how filmic technologies aid governments and military-industrial complexes in pervasive surveillance and interference into every sphere of life.

The World (2020)

Peixuan Ouyang’s The World (2020) starts out with what looks like a virtual model of Manhattan’s skyscrapers but is later revealed to be a series of close-ups on the paper-mâché copy in Shenzhen’s Window of the World Park that the director visited as a child. Ouyang frames theme parks as rudimentary precursors to today’s virtual realities, reminding us that we have long engaged in extracting, copying and simulating the real (a propensity that Walter Benjamin once recognized as the very mark of modernity). In one scene, a Chinese boy visiting the park exclaims at seeing the wobbly paper-mâché “The Statue of Liberty, now I’ve finally seen it!,” which poses the question of whether certain encounters with an idea, even as embodied in a proxy or a copy, however imperfect, aren’t as impactful as the thing itself. This point also goes to the heart of an expansive, global cinephilia, which has benefited from streaming and from sharing films online, as much as, on the more commercial spectrum, it has also been besieged by “content providers” and blockbuster streamers.

It may very well be that next year’s Oberhausen will see a return to more physically embedded filmmaking, based in the “real world.” In the meantime, this year’s online edition was a keen reminder that cinema has consistently redefined just what “the real” means. It also drove home the point that, while streaming is far from the “real thing” when it comes to a full festival or a theater experience, there is much that can be done to deliver ambitious, thoughtful, vanguard programming online, and to keep cinephile culture alive. 

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State of the FestivalOberhausenEd EmshwillerSanja IvekovićRafal MorusiewiczKhvan de la CruzNina KurtelaEszter KatalinDidi CheekaAlison NguyenZhu ChangquanAnna EngelhardtPeixuan OuyangFestival CoverageOberhausen 2021
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