Relativity: Oberhausen 2021

16 May, 2021

The transformation of film from surrogate theatre to visual art occurred when the camera began to move. Until then, the cinema’s full potential could not be realized; an immobile camera, in the fashion of a theatergoer, stared at a proscenium beyond which the action of the photo-”play” took place. Movement was confined to the actors and their constant regrouping in theatrical space. The liberation of the camera proceeded in stages; first, (though remaining fixed) the camera changed position between shots, bringing the action closer to or removing it from the viewer. This, for the first time, violated what had previously been considered an absolute distance and set the stage for an intricate (…) orchestration of establishing-, medium-, and close-shot. A further step consisted in the development of mechanical devices (special vehicles, cranes, rails, flexible tripods for pans or tilts) to change camera position. (…) It [the] moving camera (….) that served as harbinger of a revolution which – with the development of montage – transformed cinema into an art form. Fluidity of camera, its elaborate, choreographic movement within the frame have since become symbols of creative cinema, offering immediacy, authenticity, and a sense of physical participation which the immobile camera could not match.

– Amos Vogel, “The Triumph and Death of the Moving Camera”, in Film as a Subversive Art, 1974.

I’m starting this text with a quote from Amos Vogel (a quote which, to purists of the continuous steady shot, might almost come across as a form of heresy) not just because the most recent edition of Oberhausen hosed a tiny 4-film retrospective program with titles selected by the legendary curator throughout his tenure at the festival in the sixties. Nor the fact that one of the films in this micro-selection (which also featured Agnes Varda’s Black Panthers and Gunvor Nelson’s Kirsa Nicholina) was Ed Emshwiller’s Relativity, whom Vogel called the most accomplished craftsman of the American Avant-garde, whose wild, hypnotic oscillations and movements are a perfect illustration of the above thesis. I’m choosing this extract on a rhetorical note, wondering about the role and place of the camera in a time in which those who guide it were forced to limit their own movements; a period in which the camera has often turned towards its handler(s) and their own circumstances; of borrowed images from other cameras. What does this have to say about the immediacy, authenticity, and sense of participation described by Vogel, or of their absence? Is the absolute distance of theater coming back, under a transmogrified appearance? And can we still choose Brecht’s distancing effect over the fluid subversiveness of Vogel after such a year?

Fotogramă din Relativity, de Ed Emshwiller.
Still from Relativity, by Ed Emshwiller.


Oberhausen’s 2021 edition took part mostly in the same way as it did one year ago, strictly in terms of its viewing system, wherein each of its programs was available to watch for 48 hours, its competitions being complemented by various retrospectives or mini-catalogs put together by a select number of distribution companies and archives. However, two main differences were at stake this year: first of all, this edition was the first one in the festival’s history to also host an online competition, a curatorial decision which seems to have most probably been prompted by the coronacrisis, thus practically doubling the events’ tally of recent films. Second of all, the decision was made to broadcast the traditional competition “live”, at precise hours, the audience having the option of watching the films either on a stream, either on an individual basis, but with little over an hour to catch up with them. A system that is capable of giving any FOMO-ridden cinephile a panic attack, of course – and considering that Oberhausen is a festival that is tailored to all taste despite its marked experimental edge, I oftentimes wondered if this decision to double its program was truly necessary, given this edition’s lesser interesting titles. (I’ll spare you of an enumeration, but I noticed that the ones that I tended to dislike the most were misguided formal attempts at integrating things like Zoom or Instagram into cinema). On the other hand, any decision of this kind also has a bright side – meaning, double the number of good films.

Although it’s still quite unclear to me how the films were split into each respective competition (and the festival’s catalog isn’t of much help in this respect, especially since the programming committee handling both competitions was virtually the same, give or take a few names), the hint seems to lie in the number of submissions – the “old” competition received 2.522 films (44 of which were selected), versus 1.112 for the online one (with a final selection of 40). These statistics also show a different criterion – a much higher number of world premieres in the traditional competition, whose films also tended to feature longer runtimes, with 12 films clocking in at over 20 minutes, compared to just 4 in the online competition. All of this is programming geek talk, I know – but it goes to show a little bit of the effort that lies behind one of the world’s most important short film festivals. (Also, it’s a very healthy showing of institutional transparency, which more festivals should adhere to.)

There is one more reason that might lie behind the decision to double up the competition space – and it has to do with something that I was wondering about throughout 2020, seeing as other festivals were postponed or canceled, while also guessing that many films will lie in waiting until this year, which could lead to a hyperinflation of films in 2021 (considering also the growing trend of pandemic-era films). A decision such as Oberhausen’s truly does help towards correcting such a situation, especially while keeping in mind that many other festivals opted to slim down their selections in the first half of this year. Even so, I can’t help but wonder whether it’s a good thing to perpetuate the idea of mammoth-sized festivals which are unable to be processed by a single audience member.

Fotogramă din Un très long temps d’exposition
Still from Un très long temps d’exposition, by Chloé Galibert-Laîné.

On the other hand, it was interesting to see how this year’s selection partly reflected the massive return towards the films of the past during the last year, by both cinephiles and filmmakers alike, who faced the indefinite closure of cinemas and the postponements (or industry-only outings) of festivals. Ranging from films that trace memories of cinema onto found footage films, many of them mash-ups, a genre which gives new meaning to images spliced from (fiction) films into new narratives, these types of shorts could be found all across both of Oberhausen’s international competitions, as well as its sidebars. Sometimes, others’ films are addressed only implicitly – as in Nina Kurtela’s Dear Aki, who described how Kaurismaki’s cinema alleviated the young Croat filmmakers’ feelings of alienation while she studied in Helsinki. In other cases, the processes and people that work behind the screen are the ones who are featured, such as in Viviane Ostrovski’s (a key figure towards the promotion of female-directed cinema in the seventies) Son Chant, where she explores the artistic relationship between the late Chantal Akerman and Sonia Atherton, the cellist who worked on the scores of more than 20 of Chantal’s films. In others, cinema itself is a memory – both figuratively (meaning, a personal one) and literally (as images capture a former movie theater which has been converted into a liquor store during the pandemic) – as in Kevin B. Lee’s Once Upon a Screen: Explosive Paradox (featured in the Video Data Bank showcase). Lee, a central figure amongst video-essayists, remembers here the experience of watching Platoon (dir. Oliver Stone, 1986) together with his family, and the impression that the film left onto Asian-American spectators and himself.

Another increasingly prominent video-essayist, Chloé Galibert-Laîné, was featured in the festival’s online competition with Un très long temps d’exposition (available online here), a short essay which blends, both thematically and visually, the first-ever photograph to capture a man with shots of 13 Lakes (dir. James Benning, 2003), an anecdote related to the creator of video game franchise Zelda, and a poem written by her father. To what purpose? To find connections between an image’s exposure time and traces of life (be they human or not), creating tension between recording technology and the liquid state of the present time. Un très long temps d’exposition also comes on the backdrop of the pandemic’s isolation period, one that is approached in a much more frontal manner in Last Man (dir. Dana Levy), an ingenious mash-up between public surveillance camera footage from March to May 2020 and images from Last Man On Earth (1964, with Vincent Price!) and Last Woman on Earth (1960) – a playful film which infuses the strange and otherworldly imagery of the past year with the aesthetics of genre cinema. On the other side of the spectrum, turning originally innocent images into a discourse that is terrifying through the usage of juxtaposition, is Christoph Giradet and Matthias Müller’s Misty Picture, 15 minutes that create a collage of images of New York’s Twin Towers, borrowed from various films or TV series. Most seem to hail from that particular type of intro that was omnipresent in the eighties and nineties, which featured aerial shots of Manhattan (from B movies to disaster films, all the way to Woody Allen and John Carpenter) – the short is not as much a tribute to 9/11 as it is a reflection on how future histories can alter how one perceives documentary images nestled amongst fictional narratives.

Fotogramă din Covid Messages, de John Smith.
Still from Covid Messages, by John Smith.

Of course, political undertones were rife in this particular crop of films – maybe most directly of all in British maestro John Smith’s Covid Messages: a document of the pandemic which vivisects its most aberrant moments, especially in terms of official policy, led here by blundering buffoon Boris Johnson, whose gaffes make up the core of the film. We get a little bit of everything in this brilliant offering – from a recording of Smith washing his hands while singing Happy Birthday twice, but to the tune of Frédéric Chopin’s Funeral March, to Johnson’s hesitations and mistakes in public communication regarding the pandemic’s trajectory, all the way to moments in which public interest broadcasts would inexplicably jam. Smith weaves all of this together with a fictionalized super-narrative, in the tone of a medieval fairytale, while always keeping track of how many victims had fallen to the epidemic. Covid Messages brings together everything that’s best about British satire with the powers of montage, an intentionally faked document of 2020 which reveals much more than official narratives do.

Another abstract film with a pointedly political tone, but which combined street-level footage with images extracted from Polish (like Krzysztof Zanussi’s The Structure of Crystal) and Queer cinema (R.W. Fassbinder’s Querelle), is Rafal Morusiewicz’s copia de la copia (de la copia). The film’s structure brings to mind Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (dir. Frank Beauvais, 2019) to a certain extent, yet it is much more galvanized by political resistance rather than existential spleen brought on by living in a socially deteriorating context. Morusiewicz illustrates his escapism through cinema from a suffocating social miller, which is openly hostile towards LGBTQ+ people, thus finding an alternative space where political subversion and desire can flourish, in contrast to public space. Although not as prominent, a similar context lies at the backbone of Russian filmmaker Maxim Pechersky’s The Year of the White Moon – which starts from a recorded phone call between the director and his mother, seemingly during quarantine, which is played over the image of a television set that runs through various types of imagery which also enter in dialogue with the mother-son discussion. We can sense a couple of details about their relationship – the mother seems to refuse to accept the fact that her son is gay, insisting for him to get married to a woman, even though he’s struggling to explain his recent break-up from a man. Slowly, the Pechersky’s voice fades away, while the mother practically ends up speaking to herself, riffing on increasingly quirky topics (astrology, health-related issues, even a moment where she starts screaming at someone), seizing a discussion which the son abandons – a very particular moment used as a metaphor for letting go of a relationship, of a close person that can no longer be changed.

Fotogramă din Cântec de leagăn, de Paul Mureșan.
Still from Cradle, by Paul Mureșan.

One of the most touching, ingeniously simple films of this kind was I Only Wish That I Could Weep (dir. The Atlas Group, 2002, featured in the side-bar focused on Lebanese cinema), a short which is pieced together from images shot by a Lebanese Secret Service Agent. Ordered to surveil the quay of Beirut, the agent would cease his operative shoots for a few minutes every evening to capture the sun setting over the Mediterranean Sea. Kicked out of the service at one point, the man is allowed to keep these images – which, he claims, he had shot due to his upbringing on the other side of the capital, yearning for the sea; innocent images, almost home movie-like, strange moments of humanity and naive aestheticism which transcend the conflicting conditions of their existence – that of being tools towards state surveillance.

Of course, the topic of illness and death was also present in the selection. A natural symptom for a period in history as this one and its effects on artistic discourse, a similar trend being noticeable, for example, in interwar European artistic productions. More particularly, two of the films that approached these topics the closest were both Japanese – Cells and Glass, by Yuki Hayashi, and Transparent, I am. (winner of the festival’s Main Award), by Yuri Muraoka. Both films are traced along the line by how absurd it is, at times, to heal through the use of medicine – in the first, the narrator discusses receiving a transplant of an organ that was grown out of pig cells, while the second one illustrates the fact of being an in-patient of a psychiatric hospital, whilst amid a psychotic event. Both films hint towards the same ideal; the act of fully healing (be it or not temporary) can only be achieved through artistic means. The pandemic’s harshest implicit echo, however, can be found in Paul Mureșan’s Cradle, winner of the online competition’s Ecumenical Jury Special Prize. Mureșan is arguably the leader of his young generation of Romanian animation filmmakers, with an eclectic style that always combines an aesthetics inspired by Romanian traditions and its archetypal topoi (cottages, forests, and so on) with topics still considered to be taboos, which are approached through the heavy usage of visual metaphors. This time around, he pens a strong condemnation of domestic violence – the same phenomenon that, under the cold facades of the buildings that we were staring at from behind our windows during lockdown, was frighteningly exploding in intensity.

Flavia Dima Flavia Dima
Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short film festival - BIEFF, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. At Films in Frame, she writes the monthly editorial - The State of Cinema and is the magazine's main festival reporter.