By Monica Delgado

A few days ago, the 68th edition of the Oberhausen Film Festival concluded, which featured around 600 short and medium-length films from more than 70 countries, 44 of them with viewing in some online sections. After the pandemic confinement, the festival continues to be a meeting place for curators, programmers, artists, filmmakers and the general public from various parts of the world, and also as a thermometer of current trends in the format.

The inauguration marked, once again, the political spirit of the event (even more so with the Ukraine-Russia ghost that models current sensitivity, at least in Europe, yes), and the economic lags of the pandemic). Lars Henrik Gass, the director of the festival, maintained in his opening speech that given the return to normalcy of festivals, the current context marks a difficult situation for cinema: “We believe that the future of festivals lies in hybrid structures. Trade fairs are slowly realizing that they could also develop digital offerings – Art Düsseldorf, for example, currently offers digital tours for collectors.” However, reference was also made to a type of cultural online market that is unpredictable, not always successful or attractive, and that the challenge laid there. And this bet by Oberhausen appears in a limbo, that of recovering the need for face-to-face theaters -with some performance-type film projections- and that of the online option, although the selection parameters for both competitions are different (differentiated by the classic ‘world premiere’).

On the other hand, Lars Henrik Gass also commented on the ‘cultural stress’ that is currently experienced due to the lack of financing or due to some competitive modalities that create commercial and marketing conditions for applicants. He alluded that it is not only about living thinking about how to maintain stable financing, but about entering a system of competition for funds as a new forced ability that festivals or other entities that promote cinema should have.

The opening ceremony was also marked by a protest by environmental activists, who claimed the mayor of the city for the construction of a highway that endangered the conservation of a forest area, and who took the stage at the beginning of the event. And also because of the mentions in the ceremony of the situation of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, marking distance with those festivals or exhibitions that had canceled the participation of Russian filmmakers. The presence of several films and filmmakers from this country in the selection testify to the opening of the festival in accordance with a spirit of openness that is in force year after year.

As part of this inaugural political commitment, which included protests and messages in defense of cinema as a cultural right to finance, the German film Gypsies in Duisburg, by documentary filmmaker Rainer Komers (born 1944), was selected, to whom the festival paid tribute to through a spotlight on his work. Komers, who lives between Berlin and Mülheim an der Ruhr, has made more than 30 documentaries.

Komers focuses this film made in 1979, and in black and white, on the follow-up of the marginal problem and exclusion of a Sinti gypsy family in a territory in conflict: a group of caravans on land to be expropriated. With a sociological interest, the filmmaker immerses himself in this place to share some experiences and, above all, to transmit some testimonies or statements, such as that of the woman who survived a concentration camp, as part of the horror exerted on this community during Nazism.

Although the short film explores the social dimension of this community (here embodied in some Roma families) from the codes of a type of documentary (already conventional today) focused on the characters and their daily life in adversity, what is interesting is the contrast with the off-screen that embodies the city of Duisburg, which only appears as a periphery or margin, in a space where the gypsies seem not to come out and where the official or the local is only perceived from the gaze of the filmmaker. It is Komers who delves into these dynamics in a divided Germany in the late 1970s, and it is through observing him that we perceive this kind of resilience. For example, there is a scene in which the children of this impoverished migrant family are seen going to school. It is perhaps the shot that most encompasses the look towards the future of this town, to the extent that it is the student children who seem to be allowed to go to that other side, beyond the margins, and that, on the other hand, alludes also to a symbolic relationship with the present, even more so if we remember that two sisters from this family accompanied the filmmaker at the opening ceremony and were portrayed in this short film. Thus, the festival contributed to condense an impressive ellipsis, between what this documentary was and what these two women captured about seeing themselves on screen (observed, objectified) almost forty years later.

The relationship between Sinti Gypsies or Roma and locals in some areas of Germany seems to remain tense. Even more so in Duisburg, a small city in North Rhine-Westphalia, between the Rhine and Ruhr rivers, near Düsseldorf. From time to time news appears in German media about neighborhoods full of Roma or about problems with social assistance by this community. However, this theme is extrapolated towards a polarized reality in Europe around the figure of the migrant, xenophobia or displacement. And also towards a fashionable topic in recent documentary or fiction, and present through various shorts and views in this edition of the festival.

Director: Rainer Komers
Germany, 1980, 16mm, 37 min.