After 57 years of running a short film festival you’d think that the organisers of the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival would know exactly what short film is. However, the festival’s website has small text scrolling across the bottom of its pages with the provocative line “We do not know what short film is.” It is there to see for everyone who cares to take a closer look, but is just as easily overlooked. This unexpected confession is followed by a quote from Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “One must always be prepared to learn something totally new.” The triad is completed with “Well done is not good enough”. These three sentences can somehow be seen as mantras for the festival.

As the oldest short film festival in the world, far from being close to retirement age at 57, Oberhausen is more than ever a meeting point for festival programmers, curators, producers, directors, journalists and short film enthusiasts. Despite the festival’s role as a professional market place for short films and videos, the atmosphere is still congenial and friendly, more like a family meeting than a business event. This may be due to the fact that short film is not where the big money is and therefore competitive edginess is uncalled for. Traditionally the festival has been most interested in experiments within the somewhat odd “genre” of short film that is defined by length alone. Other short film festivals concentrate on short and often glossy fiction films, calling cards for directors with feature film ambitions. Not so Oberhausen, where works commissioned for art galleries sit happily next to traditionally produced and funded films, where new talent from around the globe wait to be discovered alongside established masters of the short form.

During the last few years, festival director Lars Henrik Gass has tried to forge the ties between the short film and its somewhat alienated twin, the film and video art installation. One special interest is the intersection between film and art and thus museum and gallery curators discussed with film distributors and scholars the economies of the production and exhibition of the moving image. However, it seems obvious that at the moment traditional filmmakers are profiting more from the art world and that the reverse transfer from art to cinema does not quite work so well.

Theme

Every year the festival presents an extensive themed program that aims to provoke social discussion, something Oberhausen has always been keen on. These themes are reflected across the festival and the preparations both of the festival and the theme curators are extremely thorough. This year’s theme, Shooting Animals: A Brief History of Animal Film, comprising eleven programs, was curated by philosopher and biologist Cord Riechelman and filmmaker and curator Marcel Schwierin. After attending the first animal program I was hooked and tried to catch as many programs as I could. Cord and Marcel not only managed to show rarely seen films from film and scientific archives, they also were friendly and knowledgeable guides through the cinema of animals, as the German title (Das Kino der Tiere) translates. However, their interest was not the anthropomorphic animals that Disney, Warner Brothers et. al. have added to film history, but rather the images of real animals, be they in science, natural history films or in the arts. This juxtaposition between rarely seen archival material and contemporary performances with and for animals particularly brought out unexpected connections and broadened the discussion. To me Wittgenstein’s adage was clearly fulfilled in each of the Shooting Animals screenings, where it became clear for example that even bugs will shout if they need to. Most of the silent films were accompanied live by the very versatile Stephen Horne, who even ventured to calm the audience with improvisations once technical problems caused delays in the screening program.

And animals were not only on the screens, but all over the festival. From pretty animal-shaped cookies (sweet and savoury) at the cinema cafe, to the wooden cut-out silhouettes of rats and birds across town and the printed hooves and claws leading the way from the train station to the festival centre, not to mention the beautiful chimera T-shirts. Even a guided visit to the local zoo was organised, luring the cinema animals out of their dark den.

Profile programs

Apart from the “theme” screenings, the festival offered Profiles that focus on filmmakers or specific periods in film history. Two of this year’s Profile programs caught my attention. First the screenings of the short films of Polish director and film analyst Grzegorz Królikiewicz. (1) Former director of the festival Angela Haardt had developed the program together with Królikiewicz, and it focused on his works under 45 minutes, thus leaving out many of his more recent documentary films. His early films impressed through their breathless tempo. The 1966 student film Każdemu to, czego mu wacale nie trzeba (Everyone Gets What He Just Doesn’t Need) (2) demonstrates that already in the 1960s film students didn’t quite know where they should be heading with their artistic endeavours. The festival’s theme Shooting Animals was reflected in the staged documentary Idź (Go!, 1989) where Królikiewicz shows the last hours of a horse that is lead to the top of a mountain to feed an endangered bear. His two films about young men just before (Nie Płacz / Don’t Cry, 1972) and during (Mężczyźni / Men, 1969) their military service are pure and provocative avant-garde.

The second program dealt with the dangers that Poland had to face throughout the 20th century and the resulting trauma. During the festival Królikiewicz gave a workshop for German film students and thanks to that I also managed to see his impressive feature film Tańczący Jastrząb (The Dancing Hawk, 1977). The film depicts the rise and fall of a farmer in the anything-goes-world of Socialism. In a way this is a socialist take on the theme of Citizen Kane.

Over four sessions, Southern Californian filmmaker and curator William E. Jones presented his own films as well as those that had inspired him and his oeuvre. Encouraged by host Olaf Möller, the presentations and discussions of the programs were rather freewheeling. The first program tried to shock its audience the most, showing not only Jones’ experimental forging of pornographic images with audio from the Group Dziga Vertov in More British Sounds (2006) and his rather sad essay The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (1998), but also actual sex scenes from the “alternative” commercial hardcore movie Honey Bunny (Vena Virago a.k.a. Margie Schnibbe, 2008). Such scenes are always a dangerous experiment on a big screen (and they used the festival’s biggest screen for it), as hardcore films are made to be seen in private and tend to be redundant in their imagery. However, the planned provocation of the audience succeeded to some extent. Or as Jones put it “If you show anything to do with sex, people are never satisfied – there’s no pleasing everybody.”

At times the profile felt like attending an experimental film class, as Jones showed all the classics he uses when teaching. The greatest filmic discovery for me however was Loads (Curt McDowell, 1980) in which the director films and describes his encounters with strangers who undress and masturbate in front of his camera as a stream of consciousness. My personal favourites from Jones’ own works were Killed (2009) which reveals its production process (this doesn’t happen often in experimental shorts), and Discrepancy (8 screen version) (2010) that illustrates a translated version of Isidore Isou’s lettrist manifesto that was the commentary for Traité de bave et d’éternité (Venom and Eternity, 1951). Taking the manifesto literally, Jones adds eight seemingly random parallel scenes to the text that is read aloud by computer voice. Isou’s provocative pronouncement of the end of cinema still sounds fresh, after 60 years. As in other festival programs, Jones also presented films that were originally commissioned as gallery pieces designed to be screened as continuous loops. In fact, his whole film production has shifted from classical avant-garde filmmaking to the homemade animation of freely available images from public archives by way of Photoshop and low cost editing software. A digital film production mode that costs far less and takes less time than analogue methods ever did.

The third Profile section Red Rooster 1907 – Pathé Productions in Cinema’s First Year also sounded quite tempting, looking as it did at the year in which film became a mass medium. But alas the screenings were either scheduled before my arrival or after my departure, so sadly I had to miss them.

Competitions

The festival organises five competitive strands: international, national, regional, children & youth and the MuVi music video competitions. Since every festival visit has its own dynamic, I have to admit that I got so engrossed in the theme and profile screenings, that I didn’t manage to see all competition programs. However, some I did manage to see.

The close relationship between film and contemporary art becomes also obvious in the international competition program. Among films that were made for cinema screenings were also works commissioned by galleries and museums, often intended as looped, continuous screenings. I found that some of these films didn’t work so well screened together with films that were made for the big screen, for example the Dutch production Theta Rhythm (d. Bojan Fajfric). The film needed a lot of background story to become even half interesting. You may call me ignorant, but the mere fact that the director replayed a day in his father’s life did not draw me into the “story”. In a gallery I might have found it interesting, but seen on the big screen it lacked the eponymous rhythm for me.

In Why Colonel Bunny Was Killed Miranda Pennell reconstructs the life of her ancestor who was a medical missionary in Afghanistan in the early 20th century. His accounts of events sound eerily contemporary, with stories of assassinations and opposed mullahs. Pennell is one of the filmmakers who regularly screens at Oberhausen. One of my favourites was Fabian Vasquez Euresti’s ultimately sad family story Everybody’s Nuts which brings together California’s oil boom with its agriculture and ultimately the danger both pose to the health of the locals. Of the main award winners I saw Laure Provost’s The Artist, a kind of self-portrait in her studio that is fingersnappingly fast-paced without ever becoming too hectic. Roee Rosen stages an unsettling BDSM-exorcism of the ultra right-wing politics of Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman in TSE (OUT). A dominant left-wing lesbian whips Lieberman’s devil out of the conservative sub, combining politics with questions of gender, accompanied by a rather nice Russian folk duo.

In its 13th year, the festival presented the MuVi Award for German music videos. Alongside this, the MuVi International program presented new international music videos. This genre has undergone massive changes in these 13 years, which became obvious this year, when a music video for a composition by György Ligeti received the audience award. The program reflects these changes and I really commend the selection team – music videos have come a long way.

A special sight are the mornings, when dozens of school classes flock to the festival’s Children’s and Youth Cinema screenings starting from 8.30 am. Upon leaving the cinema the pupils are handed festival balloons, which adds to the bustle and cheerful noise, carrying the festival experience into the schools and homes. The festival focuses on film education and has been doing so for quite a while – the Children and Youth Competition is in its 34th year. The competition contains programs for seven age categories, starting with kindergarten screenings from age 3 up to programs for teenagers over 16 years. Apart from the competition Children’s and Youth Cinema presents a program of experimental films that have been curated by children for their peers under the title Children Have the Choice, a special children’s selection from the Shooting Animals theme as well as a selection of music videos for teenagers.

Practical matters

The festival screenings are concentrated in one single venue, the four-screen Lichtburg Filmpalast, and between screenings the pedestrian street outside the cinema and the adjacent cafés are buzzing with festival delegates. Across the road from the cinema is a multifunctional space for discussions with filmmakers and the thematic Podium debates that discuss the communication of aesthetics and media content. A nice addition on the warm festival evenings was the Taschenkino (Cinema in a Box), a neat cube that after dark unfolded to a completely open cinema.

One of the Lichtburg screens is dedicated to screenings curated by international short film and media art distributors and archives. This is the public face of the short film market, as these showcase screenings are open to professionals and general audiences alike. A short walk away from the Lichtburg, the festival offers a video library for accredited guests where all competition films as well as all festival entries (more than 5.800 titles) and even quite a lot of titles from the theme and profile sections can be viewed. The pace is more laid back here. The video library is located in one of the buildings of a spacious youth centre that doubles as festival canteen during the day time and party space at night time. I am not sure however if this will still be the same space next time I will come to Oberhausen, since the festival seems to change its festival centre locations every few years.

The festival is truly international – all programs (except for the children’s and youth screenings) either have English subtitles or are translated via headphones into English. Even film introductions held in German are translated to make all parts of the program truly accessible for international visitors. And even the moderators make sure the audience is reminded of the translation at the beginning of each session. Having attended many so-called international film festivals, this is sadly in no way standard yet. Oberhausen clearly puts extra effort into this, even if going out to get headphones may mean that you miss the first film.

Unlike many other festival catalogues that concentrate on the selected films only, Oberhausen offers an introduction to each competitive section providing viewing statistics and reports about trends, written by the respective selection committee. Also, the special programs such as the Theme and Profile sections are introduced by well-written essays on the subject or filmmaker and provide biographies of the directors. The catalogue aims to be a real resource after the festival, not just a guide during the event.

And yes, I learned some totally new things and am questioning if I ever knew what short film was after visiting Oberhausen. Maybe I just have to come back again next year, not least to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Oberhausen Manifesto. (3)

Oberhausen International Film Festival
5-10 May 2011
Festival website: www.kurzfilmtage.de

Endnotes

  1. See also an introduction to Królikiewicz’s feature films on http://mubi.com/topics/director-introduction-grzegorz-krolikiewicz and Olaf Möller’s article in the May/June edition of Film Comment.
  2. Both Każdemu to, czego mu wacale nie trzeba and Idź are available with English subtitles on the 4-DVD-Box Grzegorz Krolikiewicz – The Masterpieces of Polish Cinema.
  3. See an English translation of the manifesto here http://web.uvic.ca/geru/439/oberhausen.html and some background here http://kulturkenner.de/static_pages/1962-–-oberhausener-manifest