The very existence of this unique six-day festival is a provocation. The oldest short film festival in the world, Oberhausen was established in 1962, when 26 young West-German filmmakers wrote a manifesto that called for and created a new German cinema that broke with the established modes of film production. Interested in breaking down the literal and figurative barriers in Germany at the time, Oberhausen is a festival that has always been concerned with challenging dominant ideologies. The 59th edition was no exception.
For a relatively small film festival, Oberhausen attracts some 1100 accredited guests who come together to share and further discussion on what, where, when and why cinema is and will become. As well as showcasing some of the most impressive short films from the last year (the festival selected 201 films from some 6,700 eager submissions), presenting rare and challenging retrospectives, Oberhausen is also a festival for discussion and ideas. This year’s theme, Flatness: Cinema After the Internet, was about examining the relationship between viewer and screen. Exploring the possibility of cinema as an interactive space, Flatness contemplated questions about spatial and temporal relationships in the new non-cinema era we have entered. The festival was also interested in interrogating the role of the film festival after acknowledging that cinema spaces might well be redundant.
To thoroughly engage with these questions, as a part of a new initiative they hope to continue in successive years, Oberhausen also invited three of the world’s strongest archives to present their aims and obstacles. Bringing archival issues to the fore in a digital age is imperative. It also helps show that the archive is a real and present activity rather than a dusty old concept boarded up under lock and key.
The first Archival program presented was from the Cinémathèque Française who presented a focus on Albert Pierru. The Cinémathèque Française, founded by Henri Langlois as a film club, has always been of the opinion that film achieves value in exhibition. Keen to show an attentive audience how the archive is contributing to re-presenting significant moving image works, six of Albert Pierru’s short films spanning 1956 to 1960 were screened; three from 35mm film prints and three from DigiBeta. Aspiring to strike 35mm prints for exhibition, the archive face the same issues any cinema or curator would; they have to negotiate first with the distributor or rights’ holder. The Cinémathèque’s Emilie Cauquy explained how collections and distributors often propose Blu-ray or even DVD for theatrical screenings. For anyone serious about exhibition, these are simply not acceptable theatrical screening formats. The digital transition has allowed distributors to wash their hands of the financial issues involved with restorations. The problem is restoration – film or digital – still requires large sums of money. With distributors’ interests less focused on individual visual and aural aspects of the film such as colour grading or re-mixing to 5.1 surround sound, many commercial DCPs (Digital Cinema Package, the now standard theatrical presentation format) are simply transfers from often average or even occasionally poor quality files in existence. The responsibility then falls back into the public sector, leaving only governments and funding bodies to pick up the slack.
The films presented, Teintes, taches, touches (Colours, Blots, Brushstrokes, 1956) Spirales (1957) and La Jeune fille a l’étoile (The Young Girl and the Star, 1960) on DigiBeta, though wonderful examples of early experiments in materiality and artistry on film, were flatter and less impressive than the 35mm prints of Fantasie sur quatre cordes (Fantasy on Four Strings, 1957), Soir de fête (Evening Festival, 1957) and Surprise Boogie (1957). These three films danced across the screen with vibrancy and the subtle movement in the gate wonderfully echoed the movement in the painterly image and the up-beat jazz tempo of the sound design. Every issue Cauquy had spoke of was exemplarily illustrated in this accompanying presentation.
The second archive to present, Pacific Film Archive, also had ties with Henri Langlois. Speaking specifically about a ten-year project titled Radical Light and Film Preservation, established to allow better research and documentation on the San Francisco Bay Area avant-garde scene between 1945 and 2000, curator Kathy Geritz stated that Langlois encouraged the archive to collect West Coast independent cinema, including the works of the recently deceased underground legend George Kuchar. She highlighted the key issue with preservation in an age of digital format: they are always changing. As a result Pacific Film Archive doesn’t just archive films, they now archive all manner of film equipment too.
Kodak closed its labs last year and there are very few places anywhere in the world anymore that can strike new prints, and some processes simply can’t be re-created, such as Technicolor or Kodachrome. The usual practice for this archive is to strike two prints in restoration; an archival print and a second print for exhibition. However, films required for research, films they know will be watched over and again, are digitised. This is to ensure they don’t compromise the quality of the exhibition print, itself already a rare and fragile object. Screening five beautiful 16mm film prints from five different West Coast filmmakers, the audience was treated to a taster trajectory of the American avant-garde and its relationship to the medium as it evolved between 1958 and 1984. Films screened were North Beach (Dion Vigne, 1958), The Bed (James Broughton, 1968), Riverbody (Alice Anne Parker, 1970), Wild Night in El Reno (George Kuchar, 1977) and Peggy and Fred in Hell: The Prologue (Leslie Thornton, 1984).
The final archival presentation, Jurij Meden from the Slovenska Kinoteka, was the most militantly dedicated to the film print medium and as a result the most inspiring. From the former Yugoslavia, thus Slovenia, avant-garde and experimental film had always been dismissed as amateur filmmaking. In 2010 the archive decided it was time to explore Slovenia’s untold, alternative film history. Screening three of seven recently-restored early Karpo Godina shorts on 35mm, Slovenska Kinoteka, at the bequest of Godina, reluctantly screened another two, still in progress, on DigiBeta.
Meden began by explaining that they do not consider what they are doing “restoration”. Their job is to make these films “visible again”. What this particular archive is careful to avoid is making new works by allowing the filmmakers too much input. It was acknowledged that large running scratches where emulsion was badly damaged would be restored but other small scratches, defects and any errors in the filmmaking would be kept, as Meden stated, “Film is a material thing. It was born damaged.” They also tried to replicate, as best they could, the original presentation conditions. Keeping the sound separate to the film print, there is, as there was originally, a performative aspect to the presentation of these films. There were two aspects however where the archive had no choice but to alter the presentation. Unfortunately the Lichtburg Film Palast, whose four cinemas house the Festival, no longer has 16mm film projectors, so the screening format was 35mm blow up. The second issue was that the first film was supposed to screen at 18 frames per second, not 24. Again, due to the technical set up at the Lichtburg, the projectors could not accommodate the non-standard frame rate. The Slovenia Kinoteka, aware of the changing and increasingly limited options available in the majority of theatrical venues, create for every work they make “visible again”; one 35mm negative, two 35mm exhibition prints, one DCP, one HDCam and one DVD. The reason for so many digital “backups”, Meden notes, is that “digital preservation”, “is two words that don’t go together.”
A pleasure to learn that not everyone has conceded celluloid is dead and buried, there were more literal moving image delights in the curated retrospective programs the festival played host to. Running alongside the festival’s main competition programming were focuses on Luther Price, Helga Fanderl, Laure Provoust, Ho Tzu Nyen, and a combined program for Petar Krelja, Krsto Papic and Zoran Tadic.
Curating the Luther Price program was not only significant but also a brave choice. A filmmaker whose works have elicited a lot of controversy over the years, Price himself is rejected by a significant portion of the gay community, despite identifying as a gay man and making films primarily concerned with issues of identity, sexuality and the self. His most infamously controversial film, Sodom (1994); a dual 16mm film projection that screened at Oberhausen, has been branded by many as homophobic. Whilst some of Price’s films are visually confronting – showing sexual acts and abrasively cutting those images with religious iconography and degraded, indeterminate images – they are also beautiful and mesmeric, worthy of attention and acclaim. Along with sexuality, Price is also concerned with identity through performativity. The presentation of Green (1988), Mr. Wonderful (1988) and Warm Broth (1988), all of which are credited to his pseudonym Tom Rhoades, along with Home (1999) and Mother (1998, revised 2002), credited to his current pseudonym Luther Price, delicately revealed a fractured sense of self. During these screenings, walkouts were common. Unwittingly, Price had achieved a remarkable synthesis between his fractured identity onscreen and the fractured reception of that identity within the cinema space.
Another remarkable program that proved film prints still have a place inside the auditorium was Helga Fanderl’s Constellations I and Constellations II. In 2005, super8 film ceased production. This meant forced change for Fanderl who previously worked only with super8, and only with in-camera editing (no cutting or splicing once the film was processed). This also meant her films could only be as long in duration as the reel of film they were shot on. As such, there is both melancholy and transience present in Fanderl’s work. With a collection of more than 600 super8 films, Fanderl’s process now is to curate her own work. Putting together unique programs of her own films, what Fanderl now creates is a new viewing experience.
Another viewing experience unique to Oberhausen is its refusal to categorise or label the different styles of short films in competition. Where most festivals would screen individual programs for narrative fiction, documentary, animation and experimental, Oberhausen sees no such distinction. Each film is judged – and there are eight juries awarding prizes – against a vast multitude of other film styles and forms.
The winner of the grand prize, Kirik Beyaz Laleler (Off-White Tulips), captured the very essence of filmmaking and film viewing with its intimate examination of the construction of narrative. Through the lens of an imagined personal relationship with the writer James Baldwin, director Aykan Safoglu revealed how admiration and empathy for someone you don’t know can grow into something profound. Safoglu has never met James Baldwin yet the film also acts as a thank you letter to a friend. In creating an imagined relationship with genuine personal feeling, Safoglu highlights how what we know about others is garnered through our own perspectives. Using found materials including Sedat Pakay’s photography, Safoglu also draws parallels between political and personal histories.
The winner of the Principal Prize was Ziegenort, from film school student Thomasz Popakul. A skilled animation with fluid lines and broad strokes, Ziegenort creates a surrealist dystopian vision of a young boy’s life. The boy is a human/fish hybrid; uncomfortable in his own scaly skin, alienated from the world both on land and at sea. Unable to sleep he takes a fishing trip and observes as the defenseless creatures are captured then slaughtered to feed humans. Full of doubt and yearning to understand who or what he is, he asks the fisherman, “How to know if it’s a boy or a girl”. The answer is demonstrated through the gutting of a pregnant female fish, the exposure of her fetus the casting evidence. Eager to fit in and impress a local girl he repeats this lesson to uncomfortable ears. Awkward and missing something everyone human seems to innately have or comprehend, Ziegenort yearns for heart, for humanity. Without whatever the illusive essence is, the only way he can come across it is to steal it. The act of taking away something innately human transforms Ziegenort from outsider to monster. Ziegenort is a story that leaves sadness and melancholy in its wake. An extremely promising first film, Ziegenort, both a literal and metaphorical tale, is powerful and heartbreaking in equal measure.
Winner of the FIPRESCI International Film Critic prize, Buffalo Death Mask, from acclaimed filmmaker Mike Hoolbloom, is a new take on the video-diary of the underground. A casual, intimate dialogue between two friends, both HIV positive, ruminates over friends and lovers lost to the virus. Accompanied by a visual collage the diary takes shape as an exercise in matching a visual representation of that which is absent to omnipresent narration. Thinking about what a past life might mean to those left behind, Hoolbloom offers the universal ideal that personal subjectivity is dependent upon the giving and receiving of love from others. So too in his film are the aural and visual components dependent upon each other. His film laments the loss of a part of the self in the passing of another free from fear or devastation. Buffalo Death Mask also achieves a kind of immortalisation of those who are absent by embalming them onscreen. Whether or not we can see clearly their faces, the aural history given by Hoolbloom and his friend is enough to make sure the friends and lovers they have lost are not forgotten.
Popular short filmmaker John Smith again received great applause and was awarded with the ARTE prize for his recent short Dad’s Stick. A personally reflective, clearly narrated and brightly coloured piece, Dad’s Stick is simple and stimulating. However, I can’t help thinking the accolade for Dad’s Stick has less to do with the film and more to do with John Smith as an established, almost branded short filmmaker.
After six days of intense visual and intellectual stimulation, the lasting impression from the festival was surprisingly less about the winning films from competition or even the potential for the continued presentation of film prints in a digital age. Rather, the greatest success of Oberhausen was opening up so many great questions about a medium that is continually changing. The awarding of prizes is a simple acknowledgement that there are still excellent reasons to be actively engaged with the not yet dead trajectory of this compelling and fascinating thing we call cinema.
International Short Film Festival Oberhausen
2-9 May 2013
Festival website: http://www.kurzfilmtage.de/index.php?id=2147&L=2