I was searching for a word to describe my specific feelings of loneliness when I came across mauerbauertraurigkeit, which the internet tells me is German for “wall builder sorrow”. It describes building an emotional wall around oneself and then, paradoxically, suffering from the resulting loneliness. 

This word is an apt descriptor for me, finally attending a film festival IRL after emerging for the first time in more than two years from post-natal, post-lockdown life. It also speaks to that thorny thing inherent in archives: it is their intention to protect and preserve but experience and exhibition is not always part of that equation. Thankfully, though, Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen marked a moment of emancipation for us both, where shared experience replaced loneliness, a wealth of material presence celebrated in person and onscreen.

Oberhausen and its screening rooms appeared, for the most part, unchanged. The crowds were fewer but, peppered as they were with familiar faces, were warm and welcoming. The programme – perhaps because there is now a three-year backlog of curated ideas to bring to live audiences – felt even fuller than my last attendance, in 2018, when I found myself overwhelmed by special focus strands.1 My lesson, since then – and perhaps the slower pace of pandemic impacted life has helped – has been not to attempt to attend it all. Instead, I sampled several different strands and found myself most enamoured with the pace and space of photochemical screenings and the slower moving reflective programmes that considered rather than said things. 

From Archives, I attended a screening and talk by Cinenova Feminist Film + Video. A merger of two collections – Circles and Cinema of Women, both of which were founded in 1979 – Cinenova’s collection consists of moving image spanning the 1910s to the 2000s and includes a paper archive of flyers, posters, and other documents. Owing to funding cuts, Cinenova is now run as a collective, by a working group of volunteers. They predominantly work ad hoc or project based in order to digitise (they were very clear that ‘preserving’ is not in their financial vocab) and screen what they can. The archive, which is based in London, has not be incorporated by the UK’s largest publicly funded film body, the BFI. As such, they focus instead on the moral project of their inherently politically, socially and historically polemic collection. 

Catholic Guilt

The programme they presented in Oberhausen was of recently digitised 16mm made between 1974 and 1994. I was struck by a film from the UK called Catholic Guilt (Martine Thoquenne, 1986). Its runtime is just three and a half minutes, and in it religious iconography and other images dance across the screen to a hypnotic soundtrack by experimental music group Coil. The film finishes abruptly, its ‘ending’ or perhaps even the majority of its content, absent. After a moment’s pause – the lights briefly come up after each short in Oberhausen to allow people to come and go from the auditorium between films, without interrupting the presentation – another film, Back Inside Herself (S. Pearl Sharp, 1984), from the US, commanded the space. The visual poem urges Black women to discover and invent their own identities. 

The way the overall programme moved through images and sounds, time and space, and disparate issues of identity and self, felt like swimming in treacle. The superimpositions of billowing sheets or curtains, juxtaposed with abrasive cuts of sound/no sound, enhanced the dreamlike – or perhaps nightmarish – quality of Tanya Syed’s Chameleon (1990), where a woman interacts with her domestic environment. In L. Franklin Gilliam’s Now Pretend (1992) mirrors and performance are used to interrogate how race operates as a signifier (including a brief aural cameo from theme song from Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, 1959). 

Now Pretend

Elsewhere, in the Re-selected programme, an “ongoing attempt” from the festival to look at its own archive and the history, and which began in 2018, curator Tobias Hering invited external curators to collaborate. Re-selected 1 was co-curated by Petra Belc and Aleksandra Milijković, exploring work from the former Yugoslavia as an “Archive In Exile”:

The dissolution of Yugoslavia affected the fragmentation, dissemination, and reappropriation of its entire cultural heritage, which had adverse effects on film art. In that respect, Oberhausen’s collection of Yugoslav films can be considered an archive in exile, a remnant of film history that, still identified as Yugoslav, does not and would not exist in the place of origin in this given form.

A lot of the films – many of them award-winning and, in some instances, selected from larger production companies such as Zagreb Film, known for its animation studio – are available outside of the Oberhausen archive and scattered across the countries that once were Yugoslavia. But there are rarities in Oberhausen, too. Many that can no longer exist as part of the cultural heritage of where they are from. The paradox of this archive is that presence and absence are no longer binary, they become enmeshed. 

This programme, more than any other I attended, was not only aware of but addressed the inherent problems in (re-)selecting and presenting itself. Films that have won prizes at international festivals cannot claim to represent a national sensibility – and especially not where that ‘nation’ is so changed. There are also questions around for whom the films are made: is it intended to entertain a domestic audience or does it hope to tell the outside world its inner thoughts? Do the films, now, in this context, tell us more about Yugoslavia or Germany? Or do they tell us about both? 

3 to 22

The programme wasn’t necessarily intended to be overtly political or ‘about’ anything, other than what it innately represents. The curators selected for a variety of reasons, among them: to show the breadth and depth of filmmaking on offer; to present something in an alternative context and see how that sits; or perhaps just owing to personal taste. The end result was fascinating. 

Od 3 do 22 (From 3 till 22, Krešo Golik, 1967) was the first film in the selection and it charts a 19-hour workday in the life of a wife, mother and textile worker. Between childcare, domestic chores and her factory work, Smilja Glavaš has but minutes for herself in the day. Though the reality of it is bleak, the tone and approach are observational, suggesting that women simply get on with being overworked (historically and even still true in many places). What was shocking, however, was learning that a very short and crucial segment of the film is missing. It shows her locking up the house – her infant inside, alone – as she and her husband leave for work for the day. The curators have all seen a digital version of this film where it is present. Apparently cut, then, from this particular 35mm print, the scene is incomplete and leaves the question of who is looking after the child open and ambiguous. Accounting for its absence is tricky but it might be that seeing the child locked in, alone, would have proved too shocking for German audiences of the time. In his introduction to the screening, Hering talked about how the archive is also a mechanism for preserving the history of the material object, which, in this instance, tells us as much through absence as it does in presence. 

Also included in this programme was the wildest film I saw at the festival. Women in wedding dresses are tied to posts as bait for buses. Yes, buses, which are then hunted and shot at by a group of both ‘civilised’ and ‘savage’ men. Lead by a Black man wearing a traditional safari outfit, with several white men dressed in animal furs, the group are potentially more dangerous than the vehicles attacking the women – a VW is shown devouring a scantily clad woman in its bonnet. There’s a postcolonial reading among U pravcu početka’s (Back to the Beginning, Dejan Đjurović, 1970) playful parody of the concrete jungle of Belgrade. 

Back to the Beginning

Also included in the programme was a short that I am sure I have seen before – and maybe even as a child. Malj (The Mallet, Aleksandar Ilić, 1977) is a horrifying vision of what happens to the chicks who don’t make selection on the conveyor belt of a poultry farm. The workers’ hands decide life or death and those left behind fall into a pit of eggshells and fellow discarded chicks where they are crushed to death by the titular mallet. The heightened sound design in the film is what makes it ever so much more terrifying, though there is one glimmer of hope inserted into the piece as Ilić finds (perhaps he selects it himself) and follows a small black chick as it escapes and runs away from certain death. It is supposedly a futuristic film metaphor for ‘segregationist reality’ but it is also just the harsh truth of what happens in industrialised farming. 

In presenting the film, the curators talked about how it would screen on television in Yugoslavia, sometime in the early 1980s. And while I can’t possibly be sure that it showed – or that I saw it – on television in Australia in the 1980s, I have since discovered that a print of it, at least, is also in existence in ACMI’s archive, following its prize win at MIFF in 1979. It begs several questions: what else from the Yugoslav archive exists in exile in Australia and what role does public memory (or perhaps mismemory) play in how we understand the existence and persistence of such archive work? Can memory (however unreliable) stand in as presence in the absence of documentation? And if so, how do we archive shared experience?

In the Conditional Cinema programme, another project with a guest curator – Mika Taanila, who had already programmed the theme Memories Can’t Wait in 2014 at the festival – takes abstraction to another level. Instead of absence, which Memories Can’t Wait explored through taking away the moving image, Conditional Cinema’s intention is to explore films that “painstakingly try to reduce their expression to the bare minimum”. In these films, humans are (mostly) absent or off-screen, and the notion of creating a void is present. 

Conditional Cinema 2: Weather Conditions, explored various aspects of our natural environment; Clouds (Peter Gidal, 1969), Tåke (Fog, Inger Lise Hansen, 2018), Blue Honda Civic (Jussi Eerola, 2020), Set (Peter Miller, 2016) and Wind (Martin Putz, 2021) each tried to capture something elusive – and to allow it to be dramatic in and of itself.


For me, however, the programme spoke more about those who were absent than it did the elements present. Peter Miller’s Set, which involved the performative element of beaming a reflection of light onto the screen to further illuminate the sunset (itself an act of oddity as there is literally nothing brighter than the sun), showed images of sunsets in succession in a nod to pre-cinema and flipbooks. Each image moved ever so slightly closer to the horizon. At one point, I was quite taken by how the beam of light had caused a refraction on the seat in front of me and created an in-cinema rainbow; absent in its artificiality, the rainbow reminded me that experience is as much about what is missing as it is what’s there. As the more dramatic films rolled in, much like the titular fog of Inger Lise Hansen’s film, I became less present, allowing the images to appear before my eyes as I melted further into my seat. More than a little aware of being in a cinema – an artificial space created for the re-presentation of images of indexically real objects – the so-called ‘natural’ phenomena presented to me felt more like a showreel of extremes. This, unwittingly, led to an overall reading of the experience as a warning about the effects of climate change, especially after Wind, which included humans measuring and trying to master its intense energy. Machines, which we have invented in order to harness and control it, signify both the presence of human destruction on the planet and the absence of a reasonable solution.

Celluloid Expanded

Finally, the screening that really made my festival was the one that took place outside of the cinema, in an old building behind the railway, where people gathered simply to be. Three material film performances took place, an extension of Oberhausen’s Labs, where artists share their practice. In Celluloid Expanded Programme 1, three performances, all by Canadian artists, used a variety of processes to “push the tools and materials of cinema beyond the ways they were designed to be used”. The presentations were an extension of their practice, with multiple projections and artist interventions a key part of the living programme. What I love and what is always so special about such performed pieces is that they can only exist in that precise way in that exact moment: the presence of the material is paramount to their existence and no two screenings can, by virtue of the nature of the material object, be the same. It’s like a snowflake, and after it falls there is no evidence of its former existence, only a different, changed materiality. The practice is alchemical in this way and makes the interaction, the encounter with it and the people present a genuinely unique and shared experience. It is the binary opposite of “wall builder sorrow” as it builds a shared space and invites togetherness.

Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen
30 April – 9 May 2022
Festival website: https://www.kurzfilmtage.de/en/


  1. Tara Judah, “Finding the Forest Through the Trees: the 64th Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 87 (June 2018)

About The Author

Tara Judah is Cinema Producer at Bristol's Watershed, and has worked on the programming and editorial for the cinema's archive, classic and repertory film festival, Cinema Rediscovered since its inception in 2016. Prior to her post at Watershed, Tara was Co-Director at 20th Century Flicks video shop, programmed films at Cube Microplex in Bristol, for Australia's iconic single screen repertory theatre, The Astor, and for Melbourne's annual feminist film event, Girls on Film Festival. She has written for Senses of Cinema, Desist Film, Monocle and Sight & Sound and has dissected cinema over the airwaves in Britain and Australia for Monocle24, BBC World Service, Triple R, ABC RN and JOY FM.

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