Oberhausen 2020: on manifesting

27 May, 2020

The Oberhausen International Short Film Festival has cemented, across its history, its status as one of the most important such venues in the world, a position won largely by its ever-present connection to the newest and strongest developments in cinema, while also offering an encompassing view on the short film format itself, with a predilection towards avant-garde and experimental cinema. Founded in 1954 (being, thus, the oldest such festival in the world), the first years of Oberhausen were famous for its internationalist approach to cinema, being the only West-German festival to screen films from the DRG, while also showcasing some of the first works of filmmakers that went on to become legends in their own rights (amongst them, Francois Truffaut, Chantal Akerman, Alain Resnais, Vera Chytilova and Norman McLaren). What is arguably the most famous moment in the history of the festival is the one during its 1962 edition, when a group of 26 young German filmmakers (led by Haro Senft and Alexander Kluge) launched the Oberhausen Manifesto which some hold to be the foundational document of the New German Cinema. The text’s aims were situated in the same direction as those proposed by Cahiers du Cinema and the French New Wave: declaring the death of „conventional cinema”, they called for the creation and consolidation of a new cinematic stylistic which was exemplified by the work of young filmmakers that were spearheading a successful movement in the international festival circuit; a cinema that would be independent, „freed from the dictatorship of shareholders” and „all the usual conventions of the industry”.

Papas Kino ist tot” („Papa’s cinema is dead”), claimed the Filmstudio magazine in response, a phrase which has, in time, become synonymous with both the New German Cinema movement but also with Oberhausen’s ethos: although the Fall of the Berlin Wall and of the Iron Curtain made the festival lose its status as a space which offered a privileged insight into the cinema of the East, it adopted various curatorial strategies that were adapting to the increasing variety of the short format. It founded not only various local competitions and some dedicated to children’s films, but it also hosted the world’s first-ever music video competition within a festival, a strategy that was since adopted by many other festivals around the world. Facing the domino-effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought the 2020 spring festival circuit to its knees and led to closing cinemas around the world for an indeterminate amount of time, Oberhausen is the most important festival to date which opted to move its entire edition (the 66th) online. It’s a decision that, within the context of the festival’s history, is perfectly situated within its long line of avant-garde decisions, even in spite of the tragic context which prompted it. But did Oberhausen truly manage to maintain its spearhead position within the festival landscape?

Alexander Kluge prezinta Manifestul de la Oberhausen, 1962.
Alexander Kluge presenting the Oberhausen Manifesto, 1962.

One of the first things that I used to do at festivals, as a first-time attendee, was to take a look at its logistics – how the accreditation and ticketing services work like, the cinemas that it employed and how they used these spaces, the methods of moderating Q&A sessions and conferences, the layout of festival hubs, and so on. After taking part in a couple of online festivals over the past two and a half months, all that remains to be done in lieu of such observations is to take a closer look at various user interfaces and functionalities while half-lying in bed. Beyond similarities that can be drawn to time-based streaming services – some tenured, such as MUBI, others freshly-minted, such as Arsenal 3 and Henri, which were the object of a brilliant analysis by Andrea Lieber in Arta – it might be easiest to compare the system used by Oberhausen with that of Visions du Réel, where films were made available for free for one entire month (halved in two weeks of separate programming), up to a 500 maximum digital „admissions”. (It’s interesting to note how some strategies seem to be constructed to recall mental images of real cinema-going experiences.)

In this sense, Oberhausen was almost antithetical: a festival badge was to be acquired for the sum of 10 Euros (a modest fee, but still a fee), the films were available in segments of 48 (!) hours per program between the 13th and 18th of May, two new programs becoming available daily, in each sidebar. Obviously, spurned by the relatively short amount of time I had to watch the films and the fact that I had paid to do so led to a beneficial psychological effect: in contrast to the laziness in my approach to the films of Visions (meaning I also missed a lot of them), I binged on Oberhausen – I’d see up to 20-25 shorts a day, racing against 9 PM, the time at which they would expire locally. (The idea of putting out programs in the evening, when people are theoretically free, sounds good on paper, but for me, at least, I couldn’t muster the energy to watch 3-4 programs per night, so I ended up having to sneak in films into my daytime schedule, which clearly fragmented my experience of the festival.) It is however commendable that the platformed allowed not just individual-basis screenings of the films, but also seances made to emulate the experience of watching a short film program in an actual cinema: a playlist that would show films in a certain order, interspaced with Q&As of their respective authors. However, I can’t gloss over the fact that pre-recorded discussions with filmmakers are (for me, at least) a very sad reminder of the fact that, for the foreseeable future, I won’t be able to hear an audience asking live spontaneous questions, however simple-minded – variations of „what-was-the-idea-behind-the-film” – they might be.

Still - Would You Like To Meet Your Neighbor? A New York Subway Tape.
Still – Would You Like To Meet Your Neighbor? A New York Subway Tape.

To close these observations on a positive note, a great bonus point of the festival was its showcase space for specialized experimental cinema distributors (featuring names such as LUX, Light Cone and Sixpack). These are very useful not just for curators and programmers but, in this specific context, a chance for cinephiles to catch a glimpse of important catalogs, which allow for a better understanding of their acquisition/curatorship strategies, as well as of the cinema that they champion – from essayistic forms to purely figurative experiments to works which infringe on the area of video art. Of course, these catalogs didn’t only include new films, but also some little films offered towards (re)appraisal: such as the late Barbara Hammer’s Would You Like to Meet Your Neighbor? A New York Subway Tape (1985), a playful performative documentary in which the filmmaker provoked strangers on the famous New York subway to interact, dislodging them from the dehumanizing, lethargic hum-drum of their commutes – a film that appears all the more bittersweet, given the current context.

To (finally) arrive at the selection itself, where I mostly followed the Official Competition, a first observation would be that Oberhausen, beyond confirming its strong predilection for experimental-minded cinema (showcasing relatively few, yet consistent examples of traditional linear narratives, such as Nicolas Renaud’s Oursons), it’s a highly eclectic festival as well, seemingly refusing to have definitory formal criteria in terms of the cinema that it champions. It’s a bold approach – considering that any given audience member is never fully satisfied by the entirety of a selection, but it’s always admirable to see a selection built on the tenets of diversity. Considering these directions, I’ll speak about a couple of my personal highlights.

Still - Extranas Criaturas.
Still – Extranas Criaturas.

 ( ( ( ( ( /*\ ) ) ) ) ) (ecos del volcán), Charles Fairbanks and Saul Kak’s playful documentary, explores a community from the Mexican Chiapas, which was founded after the calamitous eruption of the El Chichonal volcano, in order to house evacuees. It’s a tender and musical portrait, which makes full use of the village’s soundscape in order to picture a community that faces both its own uprooting, as well as its politically marginalized status. Another playful, yet vaguely uncanny approach is at play in Extrañas Criaturas (dir. Cristina Sitja, Cristobal Leon), a stop motion animation constructed around a childlike fable: the animals in the woods (the bear, the rabbit, the fox, etc. – which are anthropomorphized) wake up after a feast to discover that their homes, the trees, have disappeared, felled by people who used them to build houses. The animals hatch a plan to “steal back” their houses, which ends on a happy note – but the jerky staccato of the animation and of the papier mâché figures, coupled with the fact that the shots seem to have been individually printed in black-and-white and then colored in with sharpie pens, as well as its futuristic soundscape and barely-audible robotic narrator give the film a distinctively strange tone, one that imposes an almost Brechtian distance from its infantile storyline. 

Also constructed by means of photographic montage is Bittersweet (dir. Sohrab Hura, winner of the competition’s principal award), a heart-wrenching film set at the opposite side of the emotional spectrum. Compiled from dozens of photos spanning several years, Bittersweet centers on the figure of the filmmaker’s mother, who experiences schizophrenia after she divorces his father (a sporadic, evidently toxic appearance throughout the film), and her old guardian dog. Capturing the life of his mother with his flash always turned on, Hura illuminates the corners of a difficult life, his unique access in his mother’s life translating into images that are both anxiety-inducing and extremely emotional. The images are so strong by themselves that they don’t require any external narration, save for the short text introduction that opens the film – their simple juxtaposition creating a powerful story about unconditional love.

Still - Bella.
Still – Bella.

The concept of a familia sans pater and of mother-son relationship also lie at the heart of BELLA (r. Thelyia Petraki, winner of the e-flux award), a film that was spun out of a (real) correspondence between the protagonist, a staunch neo-Marxist, and her husband, who has been for some time in Moscow, on a work trip. Set at the end of the 80s, shortly before the fall of the communist regime, externally, but also of the drastic fall in popularity of the socialists of PASOK, internally, BELLA captures the image of a woman that must confront her ideological idealism with the pragmatism of day-to-day life, within her own private history: the longing for the man she loves, the eruption of teenage sentiments in her son, the mechanics of a daily routine that subsides on instant coffee and Marlboro cigarettes. However, the film avoids the status of a mere adaptation of these letters – Petraki melds Bella’s story, mostly shot on 16mm and VHS stock, with various types of archival footage: from atmospheric shots and home movies to reportages of street protests, a combination which leads to a film that seamlessly blends reality and fiction.

The festival’s grand winner – Lynna Sachs’s A Month of Single Frames – isn’t necessarily a film that strikes through its formal options, but rather through the fact that it managed being both a document and a fully self-contained experimental film at the same time. Constructed from footage shot by Barbara Hammer during an artistic residence in a faraway hut, without any electricity or running water, close to a shoreline, the film is rounded up by diary fragments and an interview conducted with her shortly before her death in 2019. Barbara’s images profoundly reveal her artistic process – which is similarly explored by Deborah Stratman in Verver (for Barbara) (2019), where images from a “failed” film are used  – one that is in a state of constant exploration, fluid, in perpetual motion. By contrast with the hustle of New York, the ascetic landscape Barbara observes, by the means of her unique methodology, leads to substantial reflections on the nature of time: ‘Is this why we make busy? So, we don’t have time to contemplate this endless expanse called life?’

Still - A Month of Single Frames.
Still – A Month of Single Frames.

Although these few films that have piqued my interest have truly made this experience worth it, I still don’t really know if the festival has really settled in my mind in a correct or coherent matter, given the specifics of my “attendance”. The sense of urgency that screenings may provoke in a critic is much more exciting when it involves primary sensations such as running between cinemas in a town that you barely know, than in front of a browser that seems to explode if one more tab is to be opened. It’s obviously an almost obscene privilege, given the circumstances, to be able to attend festivals that I hadn’t dreamed of going to (soon enough), and that I can enjoy all of this in the midst of a global tragedy. However, until we’re back to normal, this is all that we have left.

Flavia Dima Flavia Dima
Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short fim festival, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. For Films in Frame, she's in charge of interviews, along with Laura Musat. Favorite international film festival: Viennale.