By Tara Judah
My third year at Oberhausen was my most confronting yet. Faced with a program that was both moving and frustrating, I am left with a question about what I expect from film, and the highly reputed gatekeeper events we call film festivals.
Two years ago I was introduced to the Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen through our mutual friend, FIPRESCI. We hit it off immediately and had such a wonderful time that we made plans to see each other again. Last year I fell head over heels in love. Theme 2014: Memories Can’t Wait – Film Without Film spoke directly to my cinephilic soul. Deconstructing, expanding, reaching, the program was thoughtfully and intelligently curated and, for me, thoroughly enjoyable. This year we hit a snag. The profiles and brilliant conversation thrown up from the archive presentations aside, their 2015 Theme, The Third Image, left me cold.
It wasn’t a problem of dimension; the work was always accomplished and technically expert. But something was lacking.
Story? I don’t need art to have a narrative.
Commentary? But I only want for anything to be itself.
Context? I did find it difficult to locate precisely what the curator was trying to communicate about 3D.
Connection? The works seemed to hang in front of me.
I couldn’t find the point of access, or even a point of departure. It was like a frustrated romance where even though you know there is something to say, no one says anything.
So what do we do with moments of silence when we expect noise?
Oberhausen has been the most exciting film festival to come into my life these past years; my expectations for this year’s festival were very high. Though my highlights were few, they were rewarding. The William Raban and Ito Takashi profile programmes were fantastic, the spotlight session on Derek Jarman was as welcome as a warm hug from an old friend and, between the International Competition and the Distributor Screenings, I found my lucky dip moments.
In the Video Data Bank distributor screening I saw Louis Henderson’s All That is Solid, a remarkable desktop documentary that takes a still relatively new style of filmmaking and politicises it, asking us to think about the weight of things. Gold is melted down, reshaped into bars and taken away from the former British colony, the ‘Gold Coast’ on the Gulf of Guinea in west Africa. What is returned to the now independent nation of Ghana is hard waste. As Western countries move all that is soft into ‘the cloud’, all that is solid is exported. The footage of youth taking apart computer hardware, dumped in their country long after its riches have been taken away, is poignant and heartbreaking.
In the International Competition Chan Hau Chun’s 32 + 4, awarded the Principal Prize by the International Jury, tells a very personal, devastating story. She reveals herself and her family through a series of observed conversations and attempts to break down the physical and metaphorical walls built up from her family’s troubled past. She must discover the truth – no matter how painful. She films because she can’t not do it.
Her parents have an unreconciled past, yet they live in the same apartment complex. Her interrogation irritates her mother in a manner that verges on cruelty, and yet, even acknowledging this, she does not stop. It pains her father to admit to his own past behaviour because he sees himself as wronged. She persists. Her own memories and sense of self have been constructed through painful truths, violence and a yearning for some semblance of acceptance. A remarkable film, ultimately in a league of its own, but, for illustrative purposes it’s worth saying that it is as intelligently posited as Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012) and as heartbreakingly raw as Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (2003).
To bear witness to two such necessary, significant stories is surely a more useful valuation of a film festival’s success than whether or not I enjoyed the 3D entertainment. The problem, then, is one of reputation. For Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, the stakes are high. Its provocative political beginnings and continued standards of excellence mean average content exposes the vulnerability of curation. Sometimes there is silence where one expects noise. But the role of the film festival is to show work and the strength of Oberhausen is its commitment to continuing to showcase contentious content. For all the moaning there were significant gems and whatever it holds in 2016, I’m still enough in love to return.