The 66th Edition of the Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen went online too, and we all know why.

A moment to note and speculate on some personally anticipated and logistically reasonable absences. re-selected, a project that looks at the material biographies of specific film prints; Conditional Cinema, the expanded cinema series concluding on the topic of  “The Obsolete Human”; and this year’s theme program, “Solidarity Through Disruption”, which set out to examine the social life of film communities and movements in former Yugoslavia.

How would a geographically-specific survey of solidarity and cinema unfurl in the context of an international film festival? Where, in that provisional social landscape, between whom, and to what extent does a conversation on solidarity take place? Do conspiracies transpire between the underpaid international jetset? In tastefully disheveled clothes, affecting a bourgeois cosplay? Of all the conversations to take place on the international short film circuit, Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen is actually politically accredited to host it.

In the first few years of the festival’s existence, near the beginning of the Cold War, Oberhausen was the only festival where people could watch films from the Eastern Bloc. It was also one of two festivals (and the only international festival) that screened New Yugoslav and Black Wave films. As noted in my 2019 report, when the festival awards a film, a print of that film is acquired for the festival’s archive — a stipulation that can be manipulated to acquire, and therefore archive, a film. Kurzfilmtage’s collection has over 100 Yugoslavian films, including Želemir Žilnik’s The Unemployed (Nezaposleni ljudi, 1968), June Turmoil (Lipanjska gibanja, 1969) and a extremely unique print of Black Film (Crni film, 1971), which were all received by the Yugoslav press with hostility. Two years later, the environment for Black Wave filmmakers became politically untenable, leading to emigration, and foreclosure in 1973. The absence of a solidarity themed program is a sore spot that compounds our currently atomised viewing conditions, but it is, hopefully, not a missed opportunity.  Since we are logistically deprived of the arena to commit acts (or observe the discourse) of solidarity, we forge on with the continuum, redeploying our attention span to see tactics for the circulation of disruptive work, anew.1

The Nest Collective’s 2016 web series, Tuko Macho, previously screened at festivals such as the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival’s Primetime sidebar program for TV series, and at International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2018 and revisited in a conference in 2020. In the context of Oberhausen’s online format this year, the web series that premiered on Facebook is right at home on our various personal devices. The short format is said to strategically serve Kenyan audiences who don’t have the time or space to watch a feature-length film, “If a guy has 12 minutes in traffic, then I have a series…I can create work from them. It’s not attracting the audience, it’s serving the audience.”2 The Nairobi-based multidisciplinary group’s work is centred on urban and contemporary African experiences. Their moving image works are all formally distinct and each grapple with intersections of class, gender and dysfunctional civic politics in Kenyan society. Their 2014 anthology film Stories of Our Lives is based on the personal narratives that the group collected, and later archived, as documents of queer experiences in Kenya, where the series is banned. Although the film was available to watch, Stories of Our Lives was extensively discussed by members of The Nest, Jim Chuchu and Akati Khasiani, in a recorded conversation specifically about feminism and queerness.

Tuko Macho

Tuko Macho opens with Charlo, a notorious carjacker, who is psychologically toying with a yuppie at gunpoint as a preamble to stealing his car. Their dialogue is interrupted by Tuko Macho, a vigilante group led by a man codenamed Jonah, who kidnaps Charlo — the first of four contentious individuals to be put on trial by a crowdsourced jury. Tuko Macho uploads a video of the captive Charlo and invites the people of Nairobi to cast votes on whether he should live or die. The first two episodes depicting the trial of Charlo premiered with fictional votes, and thereafter, the Collective opened up voting to real online audiences. Voting took place on Wednesday to Tuesday, then Chuchu’s technical team integrated the conversations, comment threads, voting results and released the following episode on Thursday.3

The collective’s co-founder and attributed director of Tuko Macho, Chuchu has said that the design of the show was influenced by the exile of Stories of Our Lives. He wanted to make a work that was irrefutably rooted in his city and engaged with Kenyan textures, pacing and language. Chuchu has wondered if Nairobi could be cast as a much darker, less elite Gotham, and speculated on “what a Kenyan superhero would look like, especially a purposeful one like Batman.”4 Vigilante justice is conventionally understood as a hallmark of Batman, and although Jonah has the stoic demeanour of a Bruce Wayne, he carries out a calculated moral experiment that more closely resembles that of a burgeoning “agent of chaos” archetype — but differently flagrant than Joker.5 In tandem with Tuko Macho’s activities are the narratives following the investigation led by the focused and uncorrupt Detective Salat (definitely Nairobi’s Detective Gordon), and flashbacks to Jonah’s past life as a private in the Kenyan army. While Tuko Macho has qualities of contemporary Neo-noir6 inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Chuchu’s form deviates by employing relatively static camera work and fewer angles to intentionally contrast the genre’s formal conventions.7

We Need Prayers

The 2018 web series We Need Prayers is a dedication to the city of Nairobi. Across each episode, the Collective captures a variety of hustles for respect and validation from the opposite sex, government workers, family, international art audiences, and one’s own social media following. Episode 3: This One Didn’t Have Enough, takes place at an upscale restaurant. The server patronises a young couple by correcting their pronunciation of tiramisu and accusing them of attempting to skip out on the bill but you can hardly feel for them. The woman is an influencer who stands on her dining chair in order to get a wider angle on her dessert and later puts her date on blast for not having enough cash to foot the bill. And the man, well, there’s nothing particularly detestable about him that would set him apart from standard cishetero-patriarchial antics. As it turns out, she only went on a date with him to please her followers who egged her on to the blind date. These triangulations of power are painful to observe because they are so pedestrian. Episode 4: This One Logged Out  takes place at a government office with a queue of people at the mercy of an unhelpful desk clerk. His Kafkaesque instructions to pay a visit to the photocopier down the hall or to pursue stamps of approval from other departments is topped by his righteous refusal to work past the end of his shift. For the folks waiting in line, he is a tyrant. The episodes seem mundane but are underlined by larger abuses of civic power that inform that which occurs at a pedestrian level of engagement. Each episode offers a portrait of social tension and wields dark humour that is uniquely summoned by depictions of bungled empathy.

While both Tuko Macho and We Need Prayers are available to screen on The Nest Collective’s website, screening for a globalised film festival audience revives conversations in the work that go beyond entertainment. During Tuko Macho’s initial run on The Nest Collective’s page, debates between Kenyans about morality, capital punishment and extradjudicial killings flooded the comments. That relational element is integral to Chuchu’s conceptual homecoming in that it produced an immaterial commons for Kenyans to hold court on these subjects. That outcome of its online premiere is inseparable from the international reception of the work wherever it is shown, and screening the work in other contexts can never reproduce that commons, but instead imparts its feasible potency.

How online film festivals structure the viewing experience really influences how a viewer might attempt to replicate an embodied festival experience. Programs were available for 48-hours from the time they were scheduled. The programs could be streamed from start to finish with the festival trailer and short Q&As following their respective films, but there was also the option to watch films individually. With the International and German Competition, it’s tempting to cherry-pick the filmmakers that we can identify and preemptively appreciate, but when I watched whole programs, I was able to detect loose themes surfacing in a handful of programs (not without twists).

Impresj (Impressions)

In Program 1, A Song Often Played on the Radio follows two figures who are competing to find precious metals in the New Mexico desert. Formally, the film unravels like a slow Western. They are dandyish figures equipped with metal detectors and distinct fashion senses moving through the bleached New Mexico landscape, looking for gold, and passing on the uranium. The first figure narrates, switching between English and Spanish. He declares that he is on an imperial dispatch seeking gold for the Spanish monarchy after reading about its possible location on a visit to the Santa Fe Public Library. A simple detail added to collapse colonial history with the present. The film opens with a sound design that surrounds the first figure in drawn out science fiction droning with layers of quickened light percussion, like a bead swirling in a glass jar. The rattling fixes our attention on a film with no events that precede any overt conflict. Each figure is depicted alone, poking their metal tools into the dry air and ground. The sound that follows the second figure is diegetic, and they never speak, and at one point, they sing to us, and all is said in their song. The film is directed by Cristóbal Martínez and Raven Chacon, who both investigate sound and experimental composition in their individual practices. Assigning each of the figures an aural environment made a short film with similar landscapes more textured, especially when inhabited by two very distinct personalities.

This competition program also screened two other films of similar length, also pertaining to tension between people and land exploitation. ( ( ( ( ( /*\ ) ) ) ) ) is a film co-directed by Charles Fairbanks and Saul Kak. The film contextualises the displacement of the Zoque community in Mexico after a volcanic explosion, and the work’s title seems to visually imply the echoes of that event. Formally, this observational documentary lets the mango and popsicle hawkers, local children questioning the camera crews presence (“Saul, this gringo is working with you?”), and the voices over the village loudspeaker of Zoque women organisers, preachers and advertisers,  sonically inform this picture of brittle sovereignty. Chinbin Western, Representation of the Family, directed by Chikako Yamashiro, is set in Okinawa, where a post-WWII American military presence still exists. Yamashiro’s film fluctuates between the visual language of a family sitcom, operatic overtures in place of dialogue between husband and wife, and interludes of traditional Okinawan Ryuka singing. The scent is almost thrown off by the final film, Zhong Su’s Phoenix, a lurid computer animation that takes you through a graphically tortured post-apocalyptic landscape of wealth iconography and guts. It disturbed the flow, but in a way that completed the program, with the sort of inexplicable programming decision I’ve come to expect, even look forward to, at Oberhausen. Su’s films have screened in the competition every year since 2017 and last year’s Sky City (2019) had much the same effect on the overall program it was a part of then.

Chinbin Western, Representation of the Family

Two elegantly focused presentations from EYE Filmmuseum and Fundacja Arton reigned in the idiosyncratic hours wading through the competition. The EYE has restored ten films by Dutch interdisciplinary artist Henri Plaat who started  making films in the late sixties, as an “exploded hobby.”8 Plaat’s films that portray adolescent gender performativity are particularly striking. In The Strange but Unknown Star (1969) a young girl wears a rubber mask with exaggerated make-up and mimics a primadonna’s mannerisms as Annette Hanshaw sings “I Wanna Be Loved By You” plays. She writhes in a pink velvet armchair, handles magazines and waves a cigarette holder. Later, she is in the kitchen with a stemmed glass half full of green liquid and a long knife. Film and movie posters also appear in sequences where they are doused with lace, egg, dirt and water. Despite their distinct material qualities, the image and the substances they meet have a visual relationship that is more like collage than contest.

Plaat seems to revisit this arrangement of imagery years later in 1973’s Laughter in the Rosary with two children, and again in 1980’s Fashion from New York, with adult performers. All invoke tropes of femininity in early Hollywood cinema with children and drag queens queering those roles in surreal domestic situations and comical sequences that introduce two-dimensional images as objects. Like a flashforward from Unknown Star, Fashion from New York features an adult performing drag in the vein of a technicolour Lauren Bacall, but this time in a sparse New York apartment. Following an unsettling trip to Warsaw, Plaat made the film Second War Hats (1986). In it, the head of Anita Crack peeks out from a manhole and basks in a set designed to be a war zone. She models a line of wonderfully sculptural hats of satin, sequin and net and cranes her neck to survey the hectic setting. There is no immediate information available about the star of the film, Anita Crack. Her head and neck channel the charisma of a full body.

The Strange but Unknown Star

The program also includes two of Plaat’s travel films, Spurs of Tango (1980) and Fragments of Decay (1983). Spurs of Tango was filmed in just under a dozen locations in South America, including Bogotá, Lima, La Paz, Montevideo and the Pre-Columbian site Tiahuanaco, also known as Tiwanaku. The film is a procession of footage that quietly documents Plaat’s travels — architecture, South Americans working and walking through the streets, the interiors of bars and train cars, and portraits of modern objects such as record players and magazines, followed by a soundtrack that alternates between tango music and a foreign flâneur’s field recordings. Plaat visits archeological sites. The typology of light he captures is caught between the cracks of infrastructure. Of his travel films, he has remarked, “I love the colours of weather-beaten walls, patches, damp spots, corrosion. I think it’s beautiful when damp patches appear on a white wall and layers under the plaster flake loose.”9 The cataloguing quality of the editing portrays the figure of a man travelling to foreign places to collect pictures of ruin and modernity creeping up on the geography of the Other. Plaat’s tour of South America is Benjaminian in sentiment and spirit. He is mystified by the rubble of the past, and fixated until the winds of a storm in Paradise blow him into the future.10 Plaat’s interest in filmmaking concluded in 2009 with the discontinuation of his preferred filmstock. When he could longer achieve the visually candied results of Kodachrome, he did the most stubbornly Benjaminian thing a filmmaker could do, and placed his cinema on the pile, within the lifespan of a product, as addition to the rubble of film history.

Spurs of Tango

Film history is tended to by programs like this which retrieve fragments from obscurity. Fundacja Arton presented a program of films surveying experimental film by Women in late Communist Poland. While conducting research towards an exhibition of Polish conceptual photography in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Director and Curator of the Fundacja Arton Marika Kuzmicz expanded the organisation’s efforts to locate, preserve, digitise and program materials from the independent archives of Polish artists practicing during this period. Experimentation and political commentary had some breathing room during the Edward Gierek administration of the ‘70s which is marked by economic optimism (acceptance of foreign loans) followed by steep decline (debt from foreign loans). The films in the program date between 1973–79 (with the exception of The Limits of Human Possibilities, 1984). None of the films have any dialogue, and many are silent, but all announce a desire on the part of women filmmakers to experiment with film form. Whether they are using found footage, manipulating time in the editing process, or exploring repetition of the image, there was also a seizing of opportunity to perform or play with body languages in the process.

In 1960, a cultural policy was introduced to cap the representation of abstract works in public exhibitions at 15%, so while there was a clear policy in place to subdue abstraction to uphold the dominant ideology perpetuated through Social Realism, censorship was loosened under Gierek. The performing arts — in particular comedy — began to take risks and expressed political satire during performances hosted in private or underground venues.11 With the hidden and ephemeral nature of the medium and the events, the satire could not be circulated through reproduction or policed by the censorship boards. As the festival catalogue affirms, the Polish art scene at this time was shaped through “organising various types of events, such as exhibitions, symposia, and plein-airs that set the course for art in Communist-era Poland.”12

Rysunki telewizynjne (TV Drawings)

The first film in the program, Ewa Partum’s Rysunki telewizynjne (TV Drawings, 1976) shows the artist drawing thick black lines effacing the moving image on a television monitor.  Her line quality follows the logic of refusal — if the lines on the monitor are horizontal Partum draws vertical or diagonal ones. If there is a figure, she applies a simple, but cryptic, illustration or outline on top of it. Of course, the image beneath her drawing changes, and is never fully obscured or even really effaced. Her critique is light touch, morphous, encrypted. Partum’s drawing as performance sits in conversation with the Fluxus-like The Limits of Human Possibilities, wherein the artist Lmke-Konart positions her body to mimic lines she draws on the wall based on pictures of mountain ranges. She seems to be performing the literal alignment of a woman’s body with the landscape, but her awkward execution isn’t erotic at all. It resonates more like a mechanical exercise video to produce the combined malfunctioning of two Soviet motifs: the personification of the state as the Motherland, and collective exercise in order to stay fit and serve said Motherland. In Izabella Gustowska’s Wzgledne cechy podobienstwa (Relative Similarities, 1979), a pair of twins perform variations on a loosely choreographed sequence where they asynchronously mirror each other’s actions. Their movements are tender as they muss each other’s hair, compare sections of their body in amusement and laughter, and offer a set of manic grins for the camera. The film functions as both a spot-the-difference game and exercise in inexplicable expression. The program doesn’t evacuate eroticism though. Natalia Lach-Lachowicz’s Impresj (Impressions, 1973) is described as “an image of conscious corporeality” — a self portrait of the artist, who frames her bare breast that she fondles and contorts as streams of milk flow down from her shoulder region just outside of the frame. Jolanta Marcolla’s Kiss (1973) is a few seconds of footage capturing a woman blowing the camera a kiss repeatedly for nearly two minutes. This image prompted an inquiry into the motif of the kiss in Socialist Realism, which only resulted in a search results about the fraternal socialist kiss and two kiss paintings by Polish painter Wojciech Weiss painted in an Expressionist style. Marcolla’s blown kiss on repeat, albeit brief, feels like a marginal compensation for the dearth of kisses produced under the cultural canon of Communism.

Kiss

Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen online
13-19 May 2020
Festival website: https://www.kurzfilmtage.de/

Endnotes:

  1. Dujana Jelenković, The Film Festival as an Arena for Political Debate: The Yugoslav Black Wave in Belgrade and Oberhausen (1967-1973), New Review of Film and Television Studies vol. 14, no. 1, 2016, pp. 76–92.
  2. Wendy Mitchell, “How to grow film audiences? Make it easy for them, say experts”, Screen Daily, January 29, 2018.
  3. Listen to “Tuko Macho – TIFF 2016 – Interview with the Nest Collective” episode at Face2Face with David Peck.
  4. Alastair Leithead, “Kenya’s hit web series where viewers vote for vigilante justice”, BBC News, September 5, 2016.
  5. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZ8YU5GcK-s.
  6. It was never about the crime in the city, the core interest is the identity and how goodness or badness gets structured in the city.”  “Tuko Macho – TIFF 2016 – Interview with The Nest Collective” Face2Face with David Peck.
  7. Ibid.
  8. http://www.ubu.com/film/plaat.html.
  9. See program notes for The Poetics of Plaat, Eye Filmmuseum, 2017.
  10. See Walter Benjamin’s Thesis IX in “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations: “This is how one pictures the Angel of History. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.”
  11. See Monika Jankowski, “Popular Culture in 1970s and 1980s Poland” thesis, City University of New York, 2016, p. 25.
  12.  Interesting to note, though not directly related to the films in the program, is that following the rise and fall of economic optimism, and hence artistic freedom, martial law was declared in 1981 to repress the Polish trade union, Solidarity. This again instilled fear of mounting political critique or artistic expression that was not aligned with the state’s cultural agenda. The movement’s popularity and traction can be attributed to its ties to the Catholic church, so spaces of worship began to host exhibitions and events-based artistic projects where they were more difficult to detect and censor. See note for the  “Escapes: Polish Art in the Communist Era” exhibition, Loyola Marymount University.