It’s not new to claim that cinema is in crisis. Issues of format, exhibition, theory and the very ontology of the thing have repeatedly come into question for filmmakers and curators – especially when it comes to experimental and artists’ moving image work, and even more so in Oberhausen. Conversations about the cinema space have been on the agenda since 2007 when the festival invited guests to the ‘Kinomuseum’, a program exploring the relationship between cinema and museum, and theoretical aftershocks have been felt ever since. And while the so-called crisis is not necessarily over, it is finally taking a back seat. Moving away from questions around what cinema is and how it will survive in the liminal space between commercial enterprise and art form, the festival this year was invested in engaging primarily with content rather than the shape of the thing.
Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen is well known for its annual theme – a major, provocative program that runs alongside the competition, profile, and archive strands of the festival. The festival invited Federico Windhausen (the festival’s seminar leader in 2014) to curate the 2016 theme. Moving away from the spatial and ontological considerations that have preoccupied the festival’s chief programming in recent years, Windhausen chose something completely different: El Pueblo, spatial insofar as it is concerned with socio-geographical and psychogeographical content but a far cry from the theoretical focus of previous years which included 3D, Film without Film and Flatness.
Festival Director Lars Henrik Gass seemed keen to move on, still acknowledging that the cinema space provides something that the Internet denies a viewer, while re-positioning the emphasis on the films. In his accompanying program statement, he said that film festivals must “provide orientation in a world in which the Internet has made ever more things available ever more rapidly” and that for attendees it is all about “finding, through the agency of others, something that one had not been looking for, learning something that one would not otherwise have learnt without them, experiencing insights, perhaps even wonder.”1 Forgetting about the cinema space as a physical manifestation of crisis allowed wonder to be reinstated through the piercing content on show across a variety of programs and strands, including Windhausen’s theme, El Pueblo.
A politic of Latin American discourse, El Pueblo brings fractured elements of life together; an entire region, the people of each nation, the common people and the village. On film it is a politic and an aesthetic. This theme, while absolutely cinematic in its search for a new aesthetic, has its roots steeped in the more militant guerrilla filmmaking of Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, made famous with The Hour of the Furnaces (1968) and their manifesto, Hacia un tercer cine (Toward a Third Cinema). El Pueblo, as it was constantly defined and redefined throughout the festival, is about mobilising and activating the people.
The overarching program was separated into eight separate sessions, each focusing on a different thematic concern within the broader theme; ‘From Passage to Chronicle’, ‘Labour is Absence’, ‘The City Machine’, ‘The Theatre of Conflict’, ‘Against Ethnography’, ‘The Outsider In’, ‘The Film-maker as Urbanist’ and ‘Performing the Portrait’. Each individual collection of films examines one aspect of El Pueblo; socio-geographic spaces where systems of exploitation concerning labour are inescapable; grievous social inequality that becomes the foundation for urban planning and the construction of new cities; the theatre of conflict playing out on the street, as protest, with an iron fist so tough it seems literary but without the comedy of absurdism that Albert Camus or Franz Kafka permit, and so on.
Pablo Lobato’s Corda (Rope, 2014) might best embody El Pueblo, as it simultaneously focuses on a broad social, religious picture whilst revealing the immediacy and urgency in the actions of the individuals in the frame. The camera is stuck in a push-pull procession, where thousands of individuals surge forwards and stumble backwards, barefoot, drenched in sweat, water and the collective humidity, holding on with faith and determination to the 800 metre holy rope that unites them. There are moments of chaos as some individuals try to cut the rope and take a section for themselves, but there remains a supreme order as thousands stay in line, stumbling over discarded plastic water bottles, drink cans and cups, assured of their place within the whole. The camera is so close, so immediate that even though it is filmed in the streets it communicates intense claustrophobia, and contains a very physical understanding of the humidity – it is almost sticky. And yet, the unity it reveals is staggeringly beautiful.
The third program, Maquina de Cidade (The City Machine), saw six short works, all but one from Brasil, focusing on the imaginary and real effects that urban planning has on the people in its environment. The first and most tonally arresting was Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s social commentary documentary, Brasilia, contradicoes de uma cidade nova (Brasilia, Contradictions of a New City, 1967). A short document and a long short film, running at just over twenty-three minutes, Brasilia lays out – beautifully, with parody and devastation, each in turn – the creation and paradox of a social dream that is obliterated by the systems that exact it. The film begins as if it were an advertisement for a holiday destination; jaunty music swelling just as the camera pans to reveal a new, bold, urban structure. But, as it continues to reveal the designers’ plans – nay, their ‘dream’ – for the city and how social welfare and inclusion could be built literally into the housing complexes, it only results in a bricks and mortar view of how terribly they failed. Unfinished complexes, homes built around centres that were supposed to have schools, shops and local amenities, instead face an empty grass lawn: paradise fallen.
Immediately following this film was another astounding account, Clara Ianni’s Forma livre (Free Form, 2013) where Brasilia’s urban planner, Lucio Costa, and lead architect, Oscar Niemeyer, are asked about the massacre of over 100 labourers who worked on the city’s dream buildings. The recorded interviews are played over archive images of Costa’s sketches and Marcel Gautherot’s photographs of the construction. Perhaps more chilling even than their straight up denial of the events is the nonchalance with which Costa and Niemeyer answer the question. Gradually, as they become more annoyed with the line of questioning, the focus shifts from an ‘I wasn’t aware’ to a ‘why are you asking/what does it matter?” line of defence. Not only is Niemeyer uninterested in Ianni’s retrospective filmic investigation but he asks her, clearly bored of the subject, why make the inquiry at all? Murders of this kind were taking place all over Brasil (and indeed other parts of Latin America) at the time, and so, he suggests, the truth about this specific hundred or so people is pointless and insignificant. For a Western viewer this is shocking, but it calls quickly and vividly to mind the more recent works of Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán; Nostalgia de la Luz (Nostalgia For the Light, 2010) and El botón de nácar (The Pearl Button (2015). The world can never know the extent of the truth of every unjust death that has taken place, nor the names of those lost to their loved ones.
Brasilia is not the only city that has spiralled out of control and become a cesspool of injustice. In the capital Sao Paulo, automobile production has reached insane levels and thousands of brand new cars are produced and sold every week. It is a city of great conflict; extreme wealth and abject poverty, global industry and local depravity; and one where old cinema sites, gardens, residences and so on are paved and converted into parking lots to house metal monstrosities. A tart comparison to Brasilia, contradicoes de uma cidade nova, Miguel Ramos, Helena Grama Ungaretti and Alexandre Wharhaftig’s E (2014) brutally reveals how some people care more about putting up finance to house metal than flesh. Metal has a monetary value that has become, among the corrupt and the cynical, more valuable than human life. E is a slow, static look at spaces but a sharp, guttural jab at economic systems that fail the people.
The weight and impact of the theme this year at Oberhausen was impressive. But it wasn’t just past stories that pointed to great social and political issues. In the International Competition, Pavel Medvedev’s Hubris (2015) offered up a comedic look at Putin, with a television aesthetic and within the parameters of defining hubris. The film moves from a small safe with Vladimir Putin icons and figurines to a public arena where television news and entertainment presenters, along with their small crews, wait for the ‘great’ man to arrive. The spectacle, though finally performed (and re-performed through obsessive framing: we see the same excerpt from his speech and the same close-ups of people applauding, over and over) is no more entertaining or spectacular than the spectacle of the newscasters waiting; sweating, fretting and pacing. The act of anticipation is every bit as exciting as the event itself. Perhaps, the film suggests, the act itself is just a case of going through the motions. Each repetition of applause reminds us that this is just one excerpt from one such event where sycophants gather to give accolade. The anticipation, however, is where the real action is. The genuine response is in the impatience and annoyance that the film crews and their hosts unwittingly express.
Further away, with smaller audiences and with less hubbub than the theme, profiles or competition can muster, is a strand of innovative filmmaking from places lucky/wealthy enough to have distributors for artists’ moving image. There were presentations from Av-Arkki Distribution Centre for Finnish Media Art, Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Distribution in Germany, the USA’s Video Data Bank and (EAI) Electronic Arts Intermix, LIMA in the Netherlands, the LUX in Great Britain, Light Cone in France, Sweden’s Filmform, Austria’s sixpackfilm, Circuit Artist Film and Video from Aotearoa and New Zealand (which included representation of Australian lecturer and filmmaker Dirk de Bruyn’s brilliant 2015 film, East Meets West), Image Movement Berlin and Canada’s VTape and CFMDC (Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre).
From these unassuming industry screenings – put on by distributors with the hope of catching a curator’s eye – was perhaps my favourite, and I’d argue against it as frivolous, film in the festival. Cooper Battersby and Emily Vey Duke’s Dear Lorde (2015), winner of the EMAF Award at the European Media Art Festival 2015, and first in a showcase from VTape distribution in Canada, is the kind of delightful, thoughtful, personally political and totally bonkers mix-tape filmmaking that reminds us what’s enjoyable about artists’ moving image – welcome after Malin Pettersson Öberg’s Att läsa glaset (2015), a film with just one, slow, fifteen-minute pan across an archive of Swedish glass, which sent me to sleep the night before.
Maxine-Rose, a fourteen-year-old feminist who lives in the middle of nowhere, has what she calls ‘a mental illness mum’ and plans to make this year the one where she actually becomes ‘a worthwhile person’. She writes a series of letters to her idols, beginning with Lorde and including the likes of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The voice-over is a northern English lass, but the girl we see onscreen is all-American. It’s an imagined narrative, but it could be real, and it sure feels like it is. The film moves from personal story to political outrage as it explores the mix-tape mind of a teenage girl trying to work out if wearing a t-shirt that says ‘Feminist as F#ck’ is a good way to go about being a better person, or if it’s possible to be nice to your ‘mental illness mum’ all of the time, like when global injustice is occurring, for instance. She also contemplates why she tolerates friends she doesn’t really like, who make her sing along to the latest hit by pop sensation Meghan Trainor, ‘All About that Base’ despite the fact that she prefers gobby teens from New Zealander singing about how ridiculous pop culture, fame and fortune are.
The layering in the film; it’s ability to show vulnerability and goofishness at once is what gives it heart and affect. The idea of writing to Jane Goodall for advice is funny, but the genuine questions about animal welfare and social inequality are earnest – should animals be hugged by humans or left in the wild? And what does her home town animal re-integration system tell her that Goodall’s research might not? Most significantly, how can she be aware of and address global issues when she and her mother have their share of problems at home? Ultimately, the film asks, can anyone be ‘a worthwhile person’ when they have feelings and an internal monologue and a desire to recognise and amplify their own personality? Are those pursuits selfish or okay?
The questions the film asks are specific to a teenage girl in the Western world but they also ask something that a lot of us are too scared to get at: how can we move past ourselves and be of value to others? It’s a worthy pursuit, even in the reflexive asking, but not in the bogus, smug kind of way that post-postmodern cinema has us expecting.
This is also what the entire festival has been trying to say: the stuff that’s in the film – ourselves, the world, and the struggle to reconcile the two – that’s what’s important. If we have a crisis of cinema, then that’s a spatial contemplation for industry to chew over (and they will). But if we have a crisis of social justice and global economy and historical truth and personal and public humanity, then surely that’s what’s worth looking at: what happened before and what’s happening now. Why do we have inequality and what, as a social-geographical collective, as a spectator and as an individual, can we do about it?
- Dr. Lars Henrik Gass, ‘In Praise of Programming’, 62. Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen official catalogue, p. 7. ↩