Few films captured my imagination this year in Oberhausen. Fewer still rocked my world. There were four new strands added to the program and finding my way through it felt harder than usual. Sampling rather than following any one selection, my experience was fractured, and frustrating.

Festival Director Dr Lars Henrik Gass asks in the festival catalogue if we still have time for films. While I’d say I still have time, what I am losing is patience. It’s not that everything needs to be to my liking, but it ought to get the synapses firing. This was the forest of Kurzfilmtage in 2018. Within it I saw five strong trees.

Dimitri Venkov’s Gimny Moskovii (The Hymns of Muscovy) was, for me, the boldest. Turning a camera upside down to invert our perspective of Moscow’s buildings is neither shocking nor subtle. And yet, the film is astonishing. Scored by Alexandr Alexandrov, the score’s Hymnic Variations are based on the Soviet national anthem. Here, Venkov brings city symphonies including Dziga Vertov’s iconic Soviet piece of intellectual propaganda, Man with a Movie Camera (1929), quickly and easily to mind. The immediate connection highlights the films’ stylistic and formal differences: where Man offers a collage of superimpositions, fast-paced editing and split screens, Hymns is slow and steady; where Man lets us see the maker, Hymns shows us only constructs and empty space; where Man shows us how dizzying and awesome our efforts in building can be, Hymns reveals the inability of those structures to reach let alone scrape the sky. The title of the film references Moscow’s Tsardom, but the buildings are 20th and 21st century constructs, making the case for a contemporary era of Empire and austerity. Modernist buildings first make their presence and permanence known, impressively blocking out swathes of otherwise endless sky.

The Hymns of Muscovy (Dimitri Venkov, 2018)

The Hymns of Muscovy (Dimitri Venkov, 2018)

After passing through a darkened tunnel, things get abstract. We edge towards the more architecturally odd, until we are faced with a cluster of postmodernist towers that jut into the frame like shards of glass or stalactites. Instead of reflecting on society, the glass panelled eyesores act as prisms that further skew our perspective. In just 14 and a half minutes, Venkov guides us through a surreal plane, and leaves us, contemplative, a long way from the grounded image of a man-made world.

Wondering who those men might be, I saw another tree in Lobo Mauro’s mais triste que chuva num recreio de colégio (sadder than playtime on a rainy day). Mauro offers us an emotionally bloody blended coup. What we see is the refurbishment of the Maracanã stadium in anticipation of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but what we hear is the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, vote by vote, and a humiliating commentary of the game that knocked Brazil out of the World Cup before they even had a chance to play in their own stadium: Germany annihilated them 7-1 in the semi-finals. The final soundbite contemplates a recent labour reform, and the findings are grim: no jobs, poor infrastructure. This conclusion, along with the film’s spotlight on corruption and global humiliation, drew an emotive line back to the festival’s thematic focus of 2016, El Pueblo.

Time may have marched on, but Brazil remains stuck in a quagmire of political and economic troubles. An especially striking selection, El Pueblo’s third program of films, Maquina de Cidade (The City Machine), also revealed Brazil’s failures of infrastructure and social welfare, owing to corruption and poorly managed resources. Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s social commentary documentary, Brasiliacontradicoes de uma cidade nova (Brasilia, Contradictions of a New City, 1967), revealed idealistic thinking without the urban planning to back it up. In sadder than playtime on a rainy day, Mauro offers us Democracy (with a capital D) and soccer as sports on par. For a country with such abundant and abject poverty, the large-scale emptiness of a stadium like Maracanã becomes a shining symbol for the contemporary tragedy of national pride.

The Lost Head & The Bird (Sohrab Hura, 2018)

The Lost Head & The Bird (Sohrab Hura, 2018)

The false idols we build might also be understood as the images we esteem. Told as if fable, Sohrab Hura’s The Lost Head & The Bird was my third, an especially thorny tree. The tale we hear is about a body without a head. Leaving us to wonder how one can function without the other, Hura presents a split screen series of images that range from odd to extreme, showing humans and animals in various states of duress. There are non-violent and maybe even pleasant images in the mix too, but, as Hura hopes we’ll learn, the individual becomes an indiscernible cog once the machine gets going. The pace continues to quicken until the flashing images give an almost flicker effect. Matched with a high pitch score, Hura’s film is an anxiety-inducing insta-mare. Along with a quick sighting of Super Mario, I saw Donald Trump and, suddenly, a shadow was cast over what I understood as the truth in the image. The film’s credits, a numbered, hand-written list of source materials, grew even more terrifying than the montage before them, revealing news, memes and movies as visually interchangeable. A short, indicative selection includes:

4. Phone video of woman being beaten up in Punjab – 2013
24. Popular Indian whatsapp video – cat killing rat
45. Video of person catching a monkey
54. Train ticket collector beaten by passengers – 2010
63. Vicks advertisement
68. Song sequence from the film MOTHER INDIA – 1957 

These first three trees all featured in the International Competition. Two were awarded cash prizes (Hymns of Muscovy and The Lost Head & The Bird) and the third a Special Mention. That films so critically engaged with the social and political state of things should be those most celebrated speaks to contemporary global anxieties. But it also made me wonder where the festival’s more formally and aesthetically experimental work had gone. As I continued to wander through the program, I found what I was looking for in one of the festival’s four new strands.

Along with Lectures (artist and filmmaker led talks), Re-selected (an examination of film history as a history of film prints) and Conditional Cinema (Finnish curator Mika Taanila’s three-year project examining the role of cinema in a digital age), Labs is a new festival initiative showcasing international film labs that specialise in analogue technologies. It’s a space for collectives to present their work and discuss their practice.

Stains and Scratches (Deimantas Narkevičius, 2018)

Stains and Scratches (Deimantas Narkevičius, 2018)

Here, I saw two verdant trees. One was a thrilling visual assault, involving multiple projectors. Super 8 and 16mm danced together onscreen as aural pulses bounced off the padded walls of the Lichtburg Filmpalast’s Star auditorium. It was as energetic and colourful as Oskar Fischinger’s Quadrate (Squares, 1934) and as electrifying as seeing your first Brakhage. Miguel Puertas’ Radiant Fluxus, a film performance from Spain’s Crater-Lab, reminded me of just how alive analogue image and sound can make the darkened space of an auditorium feel, something several days of digital projection had failed in achieving for me.

Even the International Competition grand prize winner, Deimantas Narkevičius’s Dėmės ir įbrėžimai (Stains and Scratches), a stereoscopic experiment in the spatial dimensions of archive film, though technically innovative and visually impressive, fell flat for me when compared with the analogue explosion of form and colour that was Radiant Fluxus. Stains and Scratches, I felt, was a one-trick pony. Separating the notion of the captured image from the tangible photochemical film it lives inside, so that the proverbial stains and scratches, or the wearing of time, become the third dimension was a fresh approach to stereoscopic technology. And yet, as the film wore on, my awe did not, leaving only the stock footage and its framing to consider. Conversations with friends who all thought this was the most striking film at the festival indicate that my lack of enthusiasm for the work is probably just a failure of personal connection. Objectively, I agree that it is a great achievement and a remarkable piece of technical work. But for mine, even the most extraordinary digital feat resulted in cerebral rather than emotive response. Perhaps the comparison is unfair, the aim of each work is not necessarily the same. Except for that, I think, Stains and Scratches wants to say something about the technology, the process and the way in which we see it – something about how we understand the layers of time and our relationship to the image, living somewhere inside it all. In Stains and Scratches I thought about it. In Radiant Fluxus I experienced it. The one-time experience on offer in Puertas’ performance piece of sonic variation and multiple projector movements happened around me. I felt as if I were in the image. In an era when images are pervasive, amusement arrives with the scarcity of being – both human and photochemical.

The Captured Light of an Instant (Lichun Tseng, 2018)

The Captured Light of an Instant (Lichun Tseng, 2018)

My final tree began as an experience in frustration, where an image would appear out of darkness for just an instant and then disappear. Constantly awaiting its return, and almost missing it every time – the “instant-ness” of the instants was superb – I longed for an image that stayed long enough to look at. Frustration soon gave way to wonder as I realised the film was offering me the very cinematic delight of wanting to see. Lichun Tseng’s The Captured Light of an Instant didn’t just show, it made me feel, with edgy acuity. So afraid of making even the slightest movement, or a muted noise from the shallow intake of breath, I felt physically arrested. At the same time, I was so desperate to get inside the instant on offer, that I couldn’t help but break the sublime intensity: I gripped my chair and drew several sharp breaths. In one of the most satisfying narrative resolutions I’ve ever known, the instant opened up and allowed me to see both light and matter in full and glorious movement. Tseng’s exploration of a city (Lisbon) and the reflective surfaces within it let movement take charge. The dance of light and surface onscreen manipulated time in order to relate how long an instant might actually be. This was a beautiful experiment and one that did Filmwerkplaats, the artist-run lab at Rotterdam’s WORM, a lyrical justice.

From politics to form, the festival led me to contemplate the politics of form in its new strand, Lectures. Giving makers the opportunity to take the curatorial reigns, the festival put its trust in Israeli-American artist, filmmaker and writer Roee Rosen, who delivered a lengthy and provocative lecture/screening, “In Defense of the Dubious”. Rosen used controversial case studies including; Dana Shutz, a white artist whose painting of Emmett Till, Open Casket, drew condemnation for exploiting a defining moment in African-American history; Jimmie Durham, who claimed to be of Cherokee descent but was not recognised as such either genealogically, culturally or legally; and Omer Fast, whose exhibition replicating a Chinatown store front was accused of being both orientalist fantasy and poverty porn. The aim was to show that art ought to be free of the right to representation that motivates conflict and outrage. Identification and representation, Rosen was saying, are up for grabs. The problem in saying that, however, is that it presumes there is no such thing as power and oppression, that everyone has equal access and agency as a start point. Rosen also suggested that, in the instance of Omer Fast at least, the problem could be located in a “misreading” of the art. Whilst there are certainly ways and modes of reading that can be called “dominant” or “intended”, it must also be acknowledged that impact and affect are not a reading, but a lived experience. In a room full of mostly white, mobile and middle-class festival-goers, no one challenged Rosen.

Bouncing between provocative lectures, labs and competition screenings, I observed the erratic shape of the festival, with its far too many strands to attend. For all that I saw, there is more that I missed; the festival catalogue is some 400 pages and I am yet to read or even look over them all. What I saw when I stood back was a forest ablaze, a wonder and a worry that you can’t see if you look only at the trees.

Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen
3-8 May 2018
Festival website: https://www.kurzfilmtage.de