By Vladimir Seput
To spend six spring days in Germany sounds like a good idea, particularly when you are visiting one of the main international film festivals in the world dedicated to short films in Oberhausen, known in German as Kurzfilmtage. I arrived there for the first time this year, as a part of the seminar that was organized for the fifth time as a laboratory for filmmakers, curators and critics. This year’s seminar led by the always inspiring artist, writer and filmmaker Roee Rosen, gathered a diverse and stimulating group which shared and discussed problems, ideas and issues of contemporary visual arts and filmmaking.
It was the 64th edition of the festival that has been known as a platform for young directors to experiment with new ways of filmmaking, which reached wider recognition in 1962 with renowned Oberhausen Manifesto, signed by Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz, among others. Ever since, the number of films at Oberhausen Kurzfilmtage has been regularly growing and this year, more than five hundred films were divided in a large number of sections, either competitive, such as the international, German or children’s films competitions or retrospective, thematic and experimental ones.
The international competition, at least the films that I watched from it, weren’t as impressive as one might expect. However, even a few exceptional works are sufficient to stay an Oberhausen devotee, and that was particularly visible in this edition through the new work by established Lithuanian artist and film director Deimantas Narkevicius Stains and Scratches which also took the festival’s main prize. Narkevicius initially trained as a sculptor and there’s something of that impulse in Stains and Scratches as well. It’s a 3D film in which he establishes a vibrant relationship between physical marks on celluloid film with the archival moving images of the underground preparation for a staging of a legendary rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar from the beginning of the 1970s. Retrieved fragments of time are combined with the emphasis of the materiality of film to produce this strange mélange, remarkable, sculpture-like piece, in which Narkevicius slowly carves his way into a loose narrative creating his distinctive style.
Writing about a Paris flood from 1955 in his Mythologies, Roland Barthes states that the flood, by relocating certain objects ‘refreshed our perception of the world by introducing into it certain unaccustomed and yet explicable points (…) All these everyday objects seemed suddenly separated from their roots, deprived of the reasonable substance par excellence, the Earth’. While watching the new film by Russian director Dimitri Venkov Hymns of Muscovy in which he turned his camera upside down to change the perspective on his city making its wide avenues and massive buildings backgrounded with variations of Russian and Soviet anthems look like a Wagnerian place from outer space, I couldn’t stop wondering if Barthes’s short piece was an inspiration for his concept or a pure coincidence. In any case, Hymns of Muscovy is a visually striking piece but the ideological foundation of the film, if there even was one beyond a somewhat repetitive aestheticism, seemed to me politically ambiguous in its perpetual glorification of the present day Moscow and, subsequently Russia.
The film obviously affected various jury members since it got both the e-flux and FIPRESCI prize, and it attests to how a simple camera movement can show things in a rather different, oneiric way, maybe even demonstrating that there is a collective dream going on somewhere from which the dreamers might hopefully wake up soon. We know that when it comes to simplicity, things aren’t always as benign as reversing the camera; pointing it at someone in a particular way can be quite problematic.
In the section Profile, the festival presented four filmmakers from Portugal, Brazil, Romania and Germany. The Brazilian one, Louise Botkay also had her latest film A Film for Ehuana screened in the international competition where it won the second award from the Jury of the Ministry of Culture and Science of North Rhine-Westphalia. The film is a dedication to the main character, a woman from Yanomami community at the border of Brazil and Venezuela where Botkay filmed members of the group in their everyday lives, mainly focusing on Ehuana and her family. Louise Botkay seems to be a director with a unique visual talent but her work presented in the Profile programme, particularly Links, also from 2018, surprised me in an unpleasant way in its exotic representation of the other, in this case African people and the desert they inhabit. At certain moments it looked like a thing from a distant past, not in a good way, and going back to the festival catalogue I found some unsatisfying explanations by the curator Lisette Lagnado: ‘The lense of exoticism is a risk that Botkay assumes beforehand (…) If her movies are convincing and if each of her images has an impact, the issue of exoticism is key in a time in which the concept of ‘not speaking for others’ has empowered many identities that did not have a public voice’, and to conclude: ‘Botkay’s wide circulation (…) is due to her devotion to simplicity’. These sentences are taken out of context of course, but even the whole text left me puzzled. Maybe the problem was in the way the work was explained and exhibited; however, simplicity can be a perilous thing when representing others.
Fortunately, that was avoided in organizing this year’s theme Leaving the Cinema: Knokke, Hamburg, Oberhausen (1967-1971) curated by researcher and filmmaker Peter Hoffmann. Serious, studious and cinephilic approach to the complex issues surrounding the movements around 1968, the theme was divided in eight programmes each presenting a subsection, from the Beginings, Poetry and Protest to Art/Actions, Material and Structure and Political Film Work. It was a demanding programme that even after fifty years still can make its viewers uncomfortable with its imagery (myself included), especially the film Why Cats? by Rolf Thissen from 1969 in which ‘a cat serves as an object for the demonstration. It is dismembered into its individual components with apparent relish’ (from Hamburger Filmschau, 1970). During the projection, the audience massively left the cinema, which ironically matched the programme’s title, and the film sparked lively discussions after the screening.
Leaving the cinema as a form of protest or leaving the cinema in terms of reflecting upon new ways of exhibiting films and the moving image seems to be a thread that passes through Oberhausen’s Kurzfilmtage history and present. For instance, both Narkevicius’ Stains and Scratches and Venkov’s Hymns of Muscovy were previously exhibited in a gallery context and it’s not surprising that they were shown here in the cinema space since they function well in both of those frameworks. The festival has a long tradition of experimental, often radical approaches to film exhibition, an attitude quite discernible this year through the programme titled Conditional Cinema curated by Finish artist and filmmaker Mika Taanila. It is envisioned as a programme that is supposed to be exhibited during the course of three years (from 2018 to 2020) while each year consists of three sequences. The project is based on an exploration of old and new, possible and impossible, conceivable and inconceivable conditions of cinema.
The second sequence of this year’s edition, The Filmers Almanac, was in my opinion a climax of the whole festival. Almanac was a unique concept related to mail-art and created by an artist and filmmaker Owen O’Toole in 1988. He sent an invitation to other occasional filmmakers around the world to participate in a collaborative omnibus piece by sending via mail their Super 8 films which they shot on a specific day of the year. He would then put them together without cutting the original short films, that way constructing an unprecedented spider web film based on the works of more then two hundred filmmakers around the world. After it was made the film was screened a few times in the years to follow and in this year’s Oberhausen Mika Taanila showed it in its original beauty, on celluloid and ‘using a variety of different audio sources, colour gels, a lazy Susan, mood curves and other enigmatic screening instructions’ (from Taanila’s introduction). It was a rare, absorbing film experience, one that simultaneously questions the concepts of exhibition and materiality, as well as medium and site specificity, and makes Oberhausen festival one of the gems among the many, giving plenty of reasons to come back for another year.