By Vladimir Seput
The International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen celebrated its 65th edition this year in a week starting with Labour Day, 1st of May. Sixty-five years is a long time and its advanced age might show some signs of wear but the festival nevertheless seems to be in a rather good condition to continue for much longer. It again featured hundreds of new shorts, (re)discovered some old ones, brought plenty of filmmakers to Oberhausen (and some classics such as Alexander Sokurov), and dedicated time to invite curators and researchers to work on the new edition of its illustrious Theme.
Oberhausen’s main, international competition for a second year in a row seemed sort of underwhelming and even though it can claim variety and diversity (fifty-three films that were competing were produced in dozens of different countries) its quality outside awarded films (and a few others) was at moments questionable. Both films that won main awards in the international competition were African-European productions; first, I Got My Things and Left by Philbert Aimé Mbabazi Sharangabo is a Swiss-Rwandan production that follows a group of young people in Kigali during the mourning of a dead friend. The film feels quite intimate with realistic, documentary-like depictions of local people while they reflect on memories they shared with the deceased, simultaneously discussing religion, mortality and poetry. Threaded with quiet sadness, I Got My Things and Left premiered at the festival in Rotterdam and it seems to be inspired by Dambudzo Marechera, the Zimbabwean writer who died prematurely in 1987 of AIDS-related illness, but that fact, in terms of the film is far from obvious without reading the jury’s statement.
Opposite from quietude is the latest work by Congolese-Belgian musician Baloji, Zombies (available online) that won the festival’s Principal Prize, a flamboyant and amusing short directed with music-video aesthetics on the streets and in the shops of Congo’s Kinshasa. Beyond the stylish surface, the film is a critique of self-obsessions and isolations as a result of an immoderate usage of mobile technology and even though successfully presented, its criticism is quite literal. However, with its visuals and funky afro-beat, it remains one the wittiest and most entertaining films of the international competition, which was a refreshing perspective in a generally speaking, ordinary selection. I haven’t seen all of the films but, as I said, after watching the majority of them, there was an impression that this year was, simply speaking, monotonous. One of the interesting films was Maya Schweizer’s L’Étoile de mer (which also won the e-flux award), a type of work that we’ve seen before, one that collages different forms of artistic expression in an essayistic way, often through a very pronounced authorial presence through the usage of subjective, associative montage. Nevertheless, it works well in a film that deals with the construction of memory, with the cinema and the past and the sea whose fluidity connects it all, the sea that can also be a liberating and suffocating force at the same time. One could say that the film is playing a safe card to a certain extent by putting Jean Epstein, Alain Resnais, Luis Buñuel and Alice Guy in the same pot while combining their work with TV reportage, archive and newly made oneiric footage but somehow, once glued together, everything comes off nicely.
Formally speaking, two works shot and projected on film, Stefano Canapa’s The Sound Drifts on 35mm and China Not China by Dianna Barrie and Richard Tuohy on 16mm left an impression of a conceptually developed and thought-through work which at the same time felt aesthetically more intriguing. It might be that they felt that way because of the materiality of the analogue that naturally becomes more prominent when surrounded with the works shot on digital but it might also be due to the financial aspects of analogue film production that seems to force the directors on slower and longer labor which sometimes, surprisingly or not, results in absorbing films. In any case, China Not China is edited-in-the-camera and through that process, through repetition of the similar but each time slightly different shots, creates a hypnotizing depiction of Hong Kong and Taiwan. The Sound Drifts, on the other hand, is an animation of a soundtrack of Canapa’s previous film called Jérôme Noetinger that depicted a performance by an eponymous French composer and improviser who works with electroacoustic machines. The Sound Drifts animates various shapes based on Noetinger’s music creating a stroboscopic, almost dizzying audio-visual experience.
Even if the section of international competition largely varied in quality, the festival’s side programmes again proved to be comprehensive in its research scope and quite remarkable in terms of re-discovering the old titles. After last year’s programme theme, Leaving the Cinema curated by Peter Hoffmann, this edition of Oberhausen dedicated its theme to an equally well-researched albeit more entertaining form of trailers. Named The Language of Attraction, Trailers between Advertising and Avant-garde and curated by Los Angeles based curators Cassie Blake and Mark Toscano, the presentation and the richness of the material through eight programmes that presented dozens of long-forgotten trailers from 1940’s to 1980’s that function on the border of advertising and art have eliminated my initial skepticism of the theme’s subject. Some of them, such as the one for Birds in which Hitchcock gives a five-minute satirical lecture on the human relationship with birds are little films for themselves, they have now become classics in the and it was a joy to see them on 35mm prints. Equally, it’s always long-awaited to watch some of the re-selected titles decades after their initial premiere at Oberhausen: Re-selected ‘is an archive project and programme series based on research in the archive of International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen and its focus is ‘the collection of analogue film prints that were regularly acquired when a film won an award from one of the festival’s official juries’ (from the words of curator Tobias Hering). It offers a small but significant selection of films and this year it included some beautiful gems like Želimir Žilnik’s Uprising in Jazak from 1972, Black Film from 1971, The Advice of a Wise Man on the Affairs of Village and Education by Daoud Abdel Sayed (1976) and On a Revolution by Omar Amiralay from 1978. I didn’t manage to watch two titles from the series, one of them apparently remarkable, the Mexican film The Secret Formula by Rubén Gámez from 1965 but the film will hopefully be widely available sometime in the future.
On my last day at the festival, as I was getting ready to leave, I watched one of the best films that the festival offered in this year’s edition and, paradoxically, it wasn’t a short film. The second part of the programme Conditional Cinema that started last year under the supervision of Finnish artist and curator Mika Taanila this year was dedicated to the human presence, language and speech in the cinema space. In one of its sections, it dealt more literally with its title, Conditional Cinema, with the films that could have been but never were. For the last part, Taanila decided to show Marguerite Duras’ 1977 experiment, Le Camion, a quiet and beautiful film in which Duras and Gerard Depardieu as Elle and Lui read Duras’ screenplay for a possible film that will never happen. Of course, the film is actually happening during the reading, in a different form perhaps, while we watch her and Depardieu exchanging lines and smoking as the evening is falling in the unknown French place. Le Camion raises questions about the nature of cinema and reality in a contemplative and elegant way, giving us hints about the elusive essence of filmmaking, while reading and therefore creating the film in front of us that we will never really be able to watch. For me, it was a sign for departure from Oberhausen and an indication that I should be there again next spring, anticipating new discoveries.