Somewhere in the middle of the seemingly borderless industrial Ruhr region, described by many as the “Detroit of Germany” greatly due to its debt-ridden, feeble state, an invasion takes place every spring by people from all walks of life coming together through one singular bond: the big screen. Unknown by most living outside of the cinephile whirlwind, the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen is, much like the city it resides in, a secret treat. All in all, the festival is a prevailing certification and a confirmation of brighter days ahead for its unconventional desire to take a closer look at the artistic work that others would never dare to consider displaying.
For this but not exclusively, Oberhausen’s preciousness is linked to a low-key, almost family-infused atmosphere that quickly connects all attending to each other and as if by osmosis, to the aligned corners of the expressionist buildings one comes across every day on the way to the Filmpalast. It was almost as if the city’s vast streets were actually enlarging the intimacy of the dark rooms in which we spent most of our time. Suffice to say, if Detroit is, in fact, the “Paris of the Midwest,” then Oberhausen stands somewhere in the middle (Wim Wenders once said in an interview that Pittsburgh smelled exactly like his hometown of Oberhausen; maybe it is of Pittsburgh I should be speaking of), as the cultural garden of that lost land in charge of reuniting artists’ cinema with moving-image art and independent fiction film, all ready to set forth this very particular genre-bender world. The world where a new lexicon and a confounding freedom within its rules continually disseminated the outer edges of what used to define the festival. Thus allowing us, as I was happy to, be a part of the tangible mess of the short film spectrum in its very own birthplace.
How did this all come about? Well, to answer that I inevitably have to call upon the power of History. History within the Fiction, History within the Man, and History within the Fiction of the Man. As Bertolt Brecht once said, one needs to look at the historic process without forgetting that behind that process, there is a human process and that ultimately the Man is the one making the History. And so they did in Oberhausen, with the infamous February 1962 Manifesto that more than a cultural change—“Conventional film is dead. We believe in the new film”—it claimed the rebirth of a nation, and with it re-configured cinema as a tool that provoked reality and took it to an unidentifiable and, most importantly, patternless level of being.
And to this day, the life of the creation of these unexpected realms outside of the commercial circuit, and of the New German Cinema inspired by it, is upheld by the festival and pretty much permeates the after effect of every single cycle of screenings programmed. So much so that it still allows the festival director (since 1997), Lars Henrik Gass, the luxury of indulging his kindred ability in making guests laugh: “They have to watch many films that nobody understands” (speaking of this year’s competition jury during the Awards Ceremony). Yes, taking into account the overwhelming number of short films that embodied this year’s edition, that being of 550 films in total, as well as the many categories these were slotted in—from the International, German, NWR (regional) and Children’s and Youth Cinema Competition programs; to MuVi (music video competition); to a theme program curated by Federico Windhausen; five profiled filmmakers (two of which were in charge of this year’s exhibition); three featured archives’ programs; and much more—it comes as no surprise that one might wonder how is it that Oberhausen’s program, organically being too much of a concoction in itself, can leave a clear, insightful notion of what the festival might be aiming at. Or even if the festival is aiming at anything at all.
That said, and the festival being the multilayered hybrid it is, Oberhausen is anxious to attend to reflection and education instead of academia. With the Competition programs closely binding the beginning stages of a young filmmaker’s career or the celebration of an established one, there is space for the artists’ retrospectives still working, rightly named “Profiles,” and the yearly curated theme program not only to complement but distinguish Oberhausen from so many other film outlets around the world. Adding to that, there’s a well-balanced group of people organized for the yearly Seminar (I was pleased to have a little chat with most of them), the post-screening Q&As, and the daily Podium whose panels veered from the intricate happenings of financing and curatorial process, to the trendiness of film school attendance and the importance of the moving-image culture shamefully rejected by the commercial art markets.
Unsurprisingly, the time compass of the work being shown and promoted is so demanding and irregular that if compared to a platform that invites all formats and tends to separate them as it goes along, the festival can feel almost too phasing. Because if we think about it, it is normal in a standard film festival for the emotional peaks of the more high-concept dramatic conventions to be smoothed over in a mid-afternoon screening by the happy artifice of a three-act narrative one commonly feels comforted by. In return, what Oberhausen does possess is a will to battle each film’s canvas of origin with its selected place at the festival. And in that sense, the festival’s selection of content can be approached as a cat’s cradle that drums up the art of communication not so much as a gestural act, the way we’ve been told to consider cinema outside of this polyphonic event, but as a language that every once in a while cannot find its due translation, leaving then one to drift. Which reminds me, having last year’s theme celebrated 3D cinema, some of that depth was still retained this year. Somewhere between the theater seats and the café promenades outside, the post-screening sensations hanged in the air, a feeling sadly contradicting a meaningful guideline from the festival as to what it’s looking for in films and their makers.
From there, a bridge is found between the city and the grave amount of intimidating programmers, critics, filmmakers, artists, curators, distributors, producers, exhibitors, students, festival-goers and many industry others present to bear witness the tenuous line between art-fueled opinions and the event’s logistic considerations. Seeing how the strength of the short film lies in the lived watercolors of an artist, each work can be a dangerous nugget of presumed. From this assumption, questions arise. Can one truly establish and transport a half-remembered memory in 5 minutes’ time to a neophyte audience? Was that why Pablo Lobato’s physical and sensorial tempest A Corda, also part of this year’s theme program ‘El Pueblo,’ opened the festival? Are those crammed, sweaty bodies forcefully rubbing themselves on each other the proof that the short can, in fact, reaches heights a feature film tends to get muddled? It may be. Lobato certainly hammers a point of view. But no festival can guarantee that. It comes in waves, and in them, we can distinguish what came to us whole and what didn’t, and then sum up our impressions from there.
So, in-between all that blurb, I took it upon myself not to concentrate my efforts either in finding films that were a means to an end or were the end in themselves, but rather leave the immersion of insured rationalizations of the myriad of propositions, especially in the midst of the competition strands, to exist wholly by themselves.
This year’s themed program, ‘El Pueblo,’ curated by Federico Windhausen, was for the first time in three years focused on content and discourse rather than carrying itself as a byline. Having as its starting point the conflicting entity the expression ‘El Pueblo’ embodies—“the entire region, the people of a nation, the common people, and the village,”, writes Windhausen in the festival’s catalogue—it explored the various angles of a lost Latin American soul (here revived) that juggles with the nostalgia of the present while looking back at the past. Here, its dominant influence is established when it peels at the ever-changing communities and political contexts that stain the archetypes of being and belonging. But ultimately it was in the mastery of conducting an autonomous language that contemplated each and every argument presented throughout that the program resonated and could even be argued, opened doors for any and every other program lined up.
Various strands of the same conversation under discussion led to the realization that the language of the films by themselves started making more sense through Windhausen’s organic curating. In both, there’s a feeling of a revolutionary turmoil storming in, a somewhat platonic game that dreams with utopia. One of the two biggest examples I happened to bump into was with Nicolás Pereda El Palacio, an immersive representation of women teaching each other the many tasks of domestic labor. Teeth are washed, beds are made, dishes are washed and a washing machine is turned on. Wordless throughout, it goes from foregrounding a cultural need to be tactile in its truth to conducting a discussion on the parameters of the illiberal economic neoliberalism.
The other one laid itself on the absence of cultural translation, of trying not to step onto people’s emotional thresholds. Bilingüe, by Leticia Obeid, starts by portraying a theater piece made up of a German dancer, an Argentinian singer and three Argentinian musicians from the wichi community in the Argentine province of Salta, to later focus on the intricacies of translation. “Translation is not always possible,” Leticia said at the Q&A. Well, nor does it have to be. Even if the exploration between a filmmaker and the subjects is manipulative, it is also open to bonding, therefore allowing the geographic boundaries of such a documentary to be the same as its cultural ones: Non-existent.
Lifting the shadow of 1960s and 1970s New Latin American Cinema, 'El Pueblo' is ultimately a search for that film movement inside the contemporary scene. And it does indeed encounter it by way of formally conceptualizing fiction and toning down the horror of factual human and environment massacres and religious reflections narratively, thus lingering the modes of convention of people's lives on screen. But “this is not a pamphlet,” as Guillermo Moncayo, the director of Echo Chamber, very simply put it. Yes, it is not an ad. The program is meant to work as a multifold representation of a reality strong enough to open the cracks of cinema so that the awareness of the amalgamation of time and place can be broken down. The camera works as a vehicle on and off screen, and it breathes through all these juxtapositions, transforming from being a vehicle of communication to almost being a character, a subject. It’s a role that is magnified with each screening in the program.
Thus, through the country’s social and class relations with labor rights, urbanism (Agarrando Pueblo, Carlos Mayolo/Luís Ospina, Colombia, 1978) and ethnography (Contornos, Ximena Garrido-Lecca, Peru, 2014) the upshot of the venerable program that unveiled itself for eight sessions was all but ordinary. Maybe the deconstruction of one’s identity on screen was more so a mirror of the “we” of Latin Americans attending and involved in the screenings than to the overwhelming “them,” the lives presented on screen. It didn’t, however, diminish the impact of such inter-relationships.
Following the same melody of political tragedy and intrinsic identity within the capsule of the International Competition program, the young production collective Somebody Nobody brings their debut, Jus Soli, the recognition and commensuration of what it really means to be British. This experimental film feeds its outspoken target of the interwar politics of race and culture by taking us on a retrospective journey from the hopeful arrival of West Indian immigrants on the HMT Empire Windrush to the destructive, gritty scenario of the New Cross House Fire of 1981 in Southeast London. The alienation of the black British population is palpable, the indignity explicit, and the overwhelming contrasts between the intensity of the living sound and the various levels of imagery formed fade in and out the charts of unsettlement and anguish abruptly, therefore perpetuating its unfiltered humanity. Still, it is the film’s aftermath that speaks volumes; leaving the spectator to rest on the undignified systems the human mind has confidently set for its population.
Speaking of the mind, among the dissonance of films screened, award-winning Lav Diaz’s 11-minute essay The day before the end was probably the one that most jarred the audience. Many were those who spoke of his inability to retain the power Shakespeare’s words will eternally deliver, overall there was a feeling of unworthiness tainting the air. ‘Why?,’ I heard a girl ask her friend after the screening. Within his complex body of work cinephiles all over the world are be aware of, I found Diaz’s tiny dystopia—inside Oberhausen’s evident search for an emotional utopia—to be an intermission for the beauty and focused urgency of memory and time once again grappled. Winner of the Principal Prize of the Oberhausen Festival this year, the film shall henceforth be interpreted either as a case of artis gratia artis or an infectious sensorial applause. I could never guarantee which.
At the other side of a not so experimental form within the International Competition showdown, Bartosz Kruhlik’s Adaptacja stares at the catharsis of tragedy and the various dimensions of the interior tumult of loss in the midst of a family with great confidence, breathing in the stylized sober eeriness I’ve learned only Poland can properly produce. Tied into that same atmosphere, Richard Dinter’s mesmerizing exercise on the sound of memory, Snö, was accurately placed as the last film of the evening and remained far from being overlooked. In the immensity of a snowstorm, a young boy travels with his mother to the mortuary where his deceased father is. In this remembered memory, not much can be perceived except for the heightened rhythm of the journey wherein life meets death. The car’s windshield wipers try to keep the snow at bay going left and right and left again, and all we can look forward to is the endless road ahead while his nostalgic reports and unsettling musings rock us to an immersing state of meditation, “today we’re visiting Dad,” he says. Is this real? His wistful voice on top of the condensation in the car windows, tall branches of trees, tire marks in the snow and the metaphoric play of light and darkness shines through our awareness on the shattering normalcy of death and the deep loneliness that permeates.
To add, the multi-layered video installation of conceptual artist Laure Provoust, If It Was, established itself as everyone's predilect choice. With her new film, she offers a sensorial reconstruction of a museum, the one room that lies bare the rules of human communication, by turning a mere experiment into a reverie that quickly obtains the status of a comment on the art institution. Witty and intuitive, Laure’s French vowels echo through the English whisper narrated and she graces us with her unstoppable obsession with breaking the physical constraints of film. In If It Was, the peculiarities of language are transcended and sooner rather than later nullified.
Too much can (and should) be written on the little wonders that the well-established International Short Film Festival Oberhausen denotes as relevant to the world outside cinephilia. But all in all, if this year’s edition was going to foreground any artist for me, that credit has to go to the insatiable Sun Xun, one of China’s rising artists whose work had an indelible influence on me. Although very much established as a painter and a filmmaker by now, Xun’s animated films were a novelty to my senses. A bit like a “Rorschach” test, his work is very acute to the human psychology and the world we believe we have cleverly made up for ourselves. Using the character of the magician—in his own words, “the legal liar”—as the catalyst figure for his thesis, the films presented work better, as his curator put it, in the scope of a story, a whole. Watching them all together, we can see the progression of this world awash in lies tearing itself apart at the seams and finding decay.
Politically motivated, Xun speaks of the mechanics of History, the deceiving concept of time and the questions that surround illusion, oppression and dictatorship within his rhetorical relationship with image and animation. We always believe in the magician, he tells us, in him we trust and yet he is the oppressor and the dictator we choose to destroy us. There is only hope inside ourselves, the animalistic human nature, and not in a revolution or the propaganda, since we’re just reliving worn days and hours. History is a vicious cycle; he seems to be telling us. Change cannot be for the better because it never truly materializes. So, he goes on featuring broken-up narratives and huge insects that plague the 19th-century world in his work.
But then again, isn’t his work a part of history too? And if so, is it also a lie? Are his films a lie?
Born into a market-oriented economy and skeptic communism in the 1980s “New China,” Sun Xun analyses the language of a place that wanted to reinvent itself but was still very much stuck in a sordid line between the population’s individual aspirations and an emotional totalitarianism. Out of the frame, the focus stands on how every social system exists to comfort us because we’ve so designed it that way. Everything’s an illusion, an act. And here he speaks of himself too. The process he uses is a lie. His truth is in the wide array of materials he uses while drawing and the computerized animation he submits the former to. He wants to show us what we’re doing wrong, so he uses ink, charcoal, oil on canvas to create a theater of memory with a realistic iconography, but never once putting himself on a pedestal above it. One very strong example is Shock of Time, where he breaks down the myths of time through Communist newspaper collages.
In the end, all he wants is to find art in the lie. Where is it? How can one reach it? Well, you might as well forget about the animation, what’s behind it, so that you can enter the world being shown and be open to the search for art, the pure texture of the lie in the way it was intended to be told by the artist, as Xun professed in the last Q&A he gave for the festival. It is still all but a trick, but at least it is one you can find a change in, even if merely within yourself.
On that note, cinema is the mash-up of not only art forms, but intertwined structures of social codes, political ventures, economic despondency and overall psychology in which the cruel passing of time and the representation of those who behold it display continuous notions of tangible feelings only sensed in the aftermath. And Oberhausen’s dear festival considers all the above, while letting the city magnify the experience. In the festival’s purple flags outside of the venues, memory comes into its own, with life attributing its weight in meaning. In the bench where we were impatiently sat, a young Wim Wenders smoked his first cigarette (as he once claimed), in the full auditorium we ran to every night a nervous Chantal Akerman presented her Saute ma ville and Roman Polanski was distinguished for his classic Two Men and a Wardrobe. A moment is only a moment until someone else decides it will be lived forever. The lightness of being on screen or in front of it can only guarantee how unbearable and necessary having to be off it is. This was my very first time in Oberhausen and enjoying the experience of drifting away in the avoidance of real life, or so I was made to believe.
Now, I remember that there was something about the warmth transported onto our shadows stemming from the night lamps, going through the gritty train station tunnel, the river, the bridge. It would be too much to call it a coincidence that when the time came for the see-you-laters, the announcing of rain drops after a week of scorching sun was there to greet us, but it did eternalize my recollection of what one of the oldest film festivals gave me when sitting at the airport waiting for my flight twelve hours later. And that I’ll surely reconstruct with time, where I’ll speak of bigger screens and whiter smiles and the thing that brought us all together: cinema, in its greatest simplest form.
Thank you for the opportunity.