The programme at the Short Film Festival is difficult, to be sure, but it always has been. Even the Short Film Festival’s first programme in 1954 already included films that could still have a disconcerting effect today, just like the first films by Chantal Akerman, Werner Herzog, George Lucas or Martin Scorsese that were screened here. A programme like this doesn’t belong only in metropolises, where it is easier to reach people to whom such things appeal and where mutual applause can be louder. It belongs precisely here, where it remains an uncomfortable imposition. Being difficult is not an attack, but a reality that refuses to accommodate, that cannot be translated, that asserts its independence. The reasons that led to the founding of the festival in Oberhausen remain relevant and tangible, even if short film outside of the cinema today displays completely different social forms. It is thus ultimately not relevant whether we show short or long films here, or what short film actually is.
Sometimes, especially when travelling, I am asked why the festival takes place in Oberhausen, where the city is and whether I live there. People in other countries obviously have difficulty imagining culture in Germany anywhere else but in Berlin. There, the best German-language theatre of the past 25 years has just been wound down without any good cause. When cultural politics indulge in location marketing, the result is curated theatre. Our answer to this was and remains: no service. No service, no anodyne art of consensus, no zeitgeist.
– Dr Lars Henrik Gass, Festival Director, 63. Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen catalogue, p.7
There were no flowers this year, in the square near the cinema. There were, however, in full bloom and perfect rows, over by the town hall. One only needed to stray five or so minutes from the cinema complex to locate them. Oberhausen, a city that does not engage with location marketing, and whose flowers are for the city not just its guests, is still a destination of sorts – for discourse. With its strong reputation for showing avant-garde, polemic and experimental works, the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen
(Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen) wears the righteousness and bravery from the manifestos of its rich history like a badge of honour. “Untitled” from 1965, published three years after the first Oberhausen Manifesto, called for the festival’s selection committee to engage with social realist cinema, specifically referencing the films of German filmmaker, Peter Nestler. At that time, three of his films had been rejected from the festival. This year, Nestler served as a member of Oberhausen’s International Jury.
The text quoted above is taken from Festival Director Lars Henrik Gass’ statement in the festival’s official catalogue. It is his “Word of Welcome”, but its title is, “Being Difficult”. It is a declaration made with urgency and determination: Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen is not afraid to think back whilst pushing forward. It will not apologise for or offer to correct its past. Instead, it cultivates a space where re-evaluation and re-positioning are possible, and welcome.
Though I was initially wary of the concept of this year’s theme, Social Media before the Internet, it proved both contemporary and convincing. Nam June Paik’s Good Morning Mr. Orwell (1984) presented an amusing yet fascinating approach to breaking down the previously conceived boundaries of television, video art and installation. Hosted across two cities, New York and Paris, on New Year’s Day in 1984, the work connected WNET TV with the Centre Pompidou via satellite, with additional broadcast connections in Germany and South Korea. Vaguely recognisable as a sort of variety show, with performances from artists such as Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel, and poets including Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, the work offered exciting experimentation within the confines of a familiar media format. Having hosts on the show helps anchor the audience in this otherwise non-linear narrative experiment. At the same time, however, the digestible format poses a problem for the work’s interactive intentions: the viewer remains passive, insofar as they are only able to witness the broadcast, just as they would any other televised content. And, even at the level of satellite interactivity, the experiment is subject to technological glitches. The live transmission forced its hosts to improvise when the technology cut out, which, arguably, enhanced and gave credence to the “live” aspect of the work, even if it was a failure of its technical objective.
The work also aspires to operate as a sort of feedback loop, delighting in the knowledge of how it is performing the “live-ness” of its own experiment. An organised glitch – not to be confused with the unplanned, real time satellite glitches that occurred, live to air, in 1984 – reveals a supposed off-air relationship between Saturday Night Live writers Mitchell Kriegman and Leslie Fuller. Pretending to be unwittingly on-air, the pair converse briefly about an unresolved personal issue before Kriegman threatens to kill himself by drinking a quart of monosodium glutamate – a substance Fuller claims he is deathly allergic to. The joke is bittersweet; in addition to Orwell’s dystopian vision, 1984 was the ten-year anniversary of Christine Chubbuck’s live-to-air suicide. Though Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) had already imagined and critiqued the sick nature of ratings-hungry executives within the world of broadcast media, the decade of distance that 1984 brought with it had made enough temporal space for comedy to intervene. Before drinking the clearly labelled MSG, Kriegman screams, “I don’t care about the avant-garde, all I care about is you!” The absurdity of the comment and its performed melodrama shift the focus of the reference away from Chubbuck. Further distancing itself from wilful bad taste, the scene plays out like a skit written for SNL might, framed as an imagined but regular televised segment. Kriegman and Fuller are posited as stand-ins for the program’s “regular” hosts, Susan Sontag and Michel Foucault. The segment is titled, “Calvalcade of Intellectuals” and is a supposed “forum for transatlantic exchange of advanced concepts”. This specific segment was supposed to examine “the insidious destruction of human intimacy by television technology”. Fuller’s explanation of how aesthetic and moral decisions are inherent in historical, sociological, theoretical and practical approaches alludes to the feedback loop that the work hopes to create. It is this aspect of the project that feels most immediate, even though it remains a one-way transmission for the viewer at home.
While it’s estimated that the original broadcast reached more than 25 million viewers worldwide, there have been many subsequent screenings and installations of the edited version, as screened in Oberhausen. That we can re-watch and re-discover a “live” endeavour some 30 or so years on is wonderful but also strangely at odds with its pursuit of interactivity. Where the brilliance of the program lies, then, is in the curation: where singular works fail, the theme succeeds. Tilman Baumgärtel, Professor of Media Theory at the University of Applied Sciences in Mainz, put together five programs that allowed the individual films to speak to one another, creating new social interactions, between the works. The dynamic between them also creates a repositioning for the viewer, who now becomes the assessor of the role of broadcast media within the feedback loop. Instead of trying to create an interaction, viewer focus shifts to scrutinising the attempt. This is far closer, I suggest, to the role of 21st century social media participation: if the broadcast is the proof of the event then the reception, not its response, is its ultimate affirmation.
Speaking directly to the void created by Good Morning Mr. Orwell, Piazza virtuale: ‘The Documentation’ (Utta C. Hoffmann, 1993) wants to solve the problem of engagement. Allowing viewers to phone in and interact with studio cameras using the touch pad on their home telephones, Piazza virtuale directly addresses the problem of geography, too. Using the same technological foundation, Qube Project (Jaime Davidovich, 1980) also invited viewers to participate via telephone, but every invitation to participate was met with an equal problem of limitation. For example, when viewers of Qube Project would call in they could give direction, but only within the parameters set by the television show hosts. Though they could command the camera person to zoom, pan, tilt or pull focus, they could not recreate or remove the set. They could also phone in and vote to see via camera 1 or camera 2, but could not add a third, fourth or subsequent camera option. For every permissible action, there were multiple denied actions.
For the second year at the festival, another five or so minutes’ walk from where the flowers were, by the town hall, Oberhausen also played host to a gallery installation. This year the gallery was brought to life by Filipino artist and filmmaker Khavn (aka: Khavn De La Cruz). His titular Happyland takes its name from a Manila slum, hoping to recreate elements of that lived experience in between the white walls and high, exposed ceilings of the gallery. The festival’s website claimed the space would be “a dump, a heavenly body, an orgy session, a punk explosion”. For me, it was a frightening contradiction. The gallery, as a conceptual space, permits all manner of ideas and aesthetics, but rarely allows interaction. The slum housing and unmanned pop-up shops Khavn had filled the gallery with, questioned its function, and the role of the casual visitor within it. I could, for example, put one euro in a dish and take a bag of unidentifiable, possibly expired, snack food but if I did I might also be stealing a crucial prop from a static work of art. My response to this was both felt and cerebral: I could not determine whether the experience was supposed to be interactive or if the real operative of the work was in making me (the casual visitor) feel terrifyingly uncomfortable for three profound and entirely justifiable reasons:
- wanting to view/interact with poverty and depravity;
- confusing conditions under which others live as art for entertainment ;
- wondering, even now, in writing about the experience after the fact, whether I ought to be impressed by the concept of the work or use the unease it inspired in me to deconstruct and dismantle the systems that spawned my ignorance and taken for granted ease of geographical, psychological, social and economic movement.
And, as if that weren’t powerful enough, the final work in the exhibition drove a theoretical stake through my very real and privileged heart. Cordoned off with police tape, my partner missed the final installation altogether – it’s remarkable just how effective yellow tape can be in establishing and enforcing, through simple semiotic signification, an un-crossable physical barrier. Inside, however, the space was entirely psychological. As I took up my seat in the designated wheelchair and placed the foil covered bicycle helmet over my head, attached to which were the headphones to accompany the looped film installation. The images were both violent and sexual and the sounds were so unnerving that I am almost certain I recall them incorrectly; running water, gusts of wind, heavy breathing, muffled voices – what I believe might be the soundtrack to insanity. There is no aesthetic interrogation in my assessment or experience of Happyland, there is only a deep line of questioning about how and why I am even able to walk through a staged rendering of the less fortunate lives of others.
Elsewhere at the festival, in the International Competition, I was struck by four films, each powerfully addressing social problems and paradoxes that impact upon physical movement. Oni samo dolaze I odlaze (They Just Come and Go, Boris Poljak), one among many prize winners at the festival, captures incongruous human movements during that liminal time and space that marks dawn, as tourists “out on the lash” (to borrow the British parlance) vacate a beach front to make way for the mostly elderly locals of Split, on the Dalmatian Coast, as they arrive for their morning dip. The drunk, oversexed and often aggressive tourists, kissing next to sacks of garbage or fist fighting on the sand, juxtaposed against mid shots of aging legs, marked by varicose veins and cellulite, reflects on the embodied foreignness inherent in youth and how it must eventually – just as night turns into day – give way to the passage of time.
In Pichirilo (d. Daniel Sanchez), a group of school kids discover the body of an abandoned, rusted car. Though it is far from mechanically up to scratch, they immediately see it as a symbol of freedom and plan to escape. Focusing a shaky camera on a static object Sanchez deftly explores the momentum of youth as an unstoppable form of optimism. Every action they exact – whether by foot or on a scooter – brings joy whilst every moment of stasis appears painful and strained. Their desire for movement is linked to their socio-economic aspiration but is also fiercely embodied as a symptom of youth, each of them falsely placing their faith in the hands of an impossible restoration of a completely defunct product of human industry.
Johannes Frese’s Titan and Katie Davies’ The Separate System both use moving image as a line of inquiry into the potential for social rehabilitation in a system of penitential justice. In Titan, we accompany the victim of a crime as he returns to the place of his attack. Titan is a neighbourhood in Le Port, Réunion Island, and where he will approach his attacker’s family in search of understanding and forgiveness. In The Separate System, twelve incarcerated men speak in voiceover as a roaming camera bears witness to the eerie stillness of the prison’s inner cells and outer walls. Davies captures the paradox of men who work in factories in jail to make objects that enable mobility by showing the moving parts; wheels in office furniture and tyres on automobiles. Both films are revelatory but refuse to adopt a judgemental lens. Both also make use of street scenes where individuals are granted freedom of movement to show the stark contrast between state imprisonment and what we perceive as social freedom. In Davies’ film the civilians use their freedom of movement to consume; each nameless face that passes the camera representing one more cog in the mighty machine of western capitalism.
Over in the archives, Peter Bagrov, Senior Curator at Gosfilmofond of Russia, presented a more complete version of the famous Soviet children’s animation Vintik-Shpintik (Little Screw, Vladislav Tvardovsky, 1927). Just like the cogs of capitalism, this soviet worker screw, tiny though he may be, is just as crucial a mechanism as any other. The fetishisation or desire for movement, Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen tells us, is an effect of social realism – the very thing the festival was supposedly lacking when it denied the advancement of Peter Nestler’s films into its program, many moons ago. Today, its interest in social realism is closely linked to its desire to situate itself as fiercely independent and geographically emancipated from the marketing concerns that negatively advance upon cultural politics. The five or so minutes it takes to walk from the cinema to the town hall, where the flowers are lined up in neat rows and full bloom, is an unwitting invitation from the city of Oberhausen – to keep moving. Refusing to pay service to the anodyne and the zeitgeist is an action and the festival, now in its 63rd year, is an unstoppable discursive force. It is forever moving forward, with all the momentum that optimism, youth, social scrutiny and the feedback loop allow.
International Short Film Festival Oberhausen
11-16 May 2017
Festival website: https://www.kurzfilmtage.de/en/