The 67th edition of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen went online for the second successive year, this time with wider ambitions. It expanded the competition program from five to eight sections, adding International Online, German Online, and International Music Video competitions to its already impressive program. In further expansion, the festival joined its own initiative, created in 2018, The European Short Film Network (ESFN), which opened up four strands of festival programming under the This Is Short offerings. Thematic and curated programs offered another tier of short films (Solidarity, focus on key women filmmakers, and short films from Lebanon).
Post-pandemic changes in the world of film festivals are already underway, now evident in Oberhausen’s shift in scale, format and reach. With the largest selection of short films available online (400 plus), Oberhausen may have set a new threshold for film festivals. In exchange for the pleasures and limitations of in-theatre screenings, the festival offered round-the-clock access without geo-blocking to a global audience. Indeed, Oberhausen director Lars Henrik Gass noted a change in conception and direction of film festivals when he said that “Festivals are changing from events to platforms.”1 It is a notable shift, accelerated by the pandemic but facilitated by the increased efficiency of web distribution and streaming platforms. This shift significantly changes the profile of film festivals, not only because streaming makes festival offerings accessible beyond its physical location, but because it allows festivals to extricate themselves from the local economic and political dynamics. Oberhausen announced that this expansion will be its permanent feature; a venerated festival of short films will be global.
This new, expanded reach of the festival is a special gift for short film watchers around the world. If short film is perceived as a neglected form (despite the fact that more short films are produced than feature or documentary films each year), Oberhausen’s expansion, hopefully with continued removal of geo-blocking, will do much for the short film format, also reviving the spirit of experimentation and innovation. Community building, socialisation and networking could now take place on a global scale. The festival began this effort by opening of Festival Space, an online meeting place.
Add to this already welcome feature the possibility of films being available for an extended period of time, and you have another unexpected gift accelerated by the pandemic: the availability of films around the clock. Now, it is possible to engage in repeated viewing, admiring, learning, and critiquing a film form that Richard Brody says, is necessary for innovation in cinema.2
Ease of access in place, I had to immerse myself into an entirely new phase of festival-viewing. Quotidian chores, family duties and professional obligations had to make way to visit the mecca of short films on any digital screen on hand and at will, but within the limits of physical endurance. Faced with the temptations of the plenty, I decided to focus mostly on competition films, in part to examine the promise of the Oberhausen festival as a space for experimental and innovative films with temporal economy as its core. When possible, I took up the role of a festival- flâneur, strolling around the corridors of programming, picking films and opportunities. One absorbs more than is possible to write about, and Oberhausen made sure to overwhelm viewers with their voluminous fare this year. “Thematic” programs had their own berths this year. Steffanie Ling has taken up the formidable task of reviewing the “Solidarity” theme, which had its own stream.3
In its call for entries, Oberhausen asks for “experimentation, innovative film languages, unusual content, and formats.”4 The ESFN statement on short films elaborates this further: “Short film is and has always been the prime source of innovation for the art of film and filmmaking, the experimental field in which future cinematic vocabularies first crystallize.”5 Since experimentation and innovation have been the hallmark of Oberhausen, I wanted to focus on this proposition while watching competition films. Given the inventiveness and experimentation in formal and narrative dimensions of short films, the value of such films may be determined by their ability to upset, disrupt, or re-arrange the realm of “the sensible”. In an allusion to Rancière, the goal of short films should be to break the expected route/s of formal constructions or accepted paths of narrative progression, in an attempts to “disrupt” the realm of the sensible for the viewer and their perceptual, political field.6 The sensible, one assumes, is already the conventions and accepted norms of filmmaking, which the very notions of “experimentation and innovation” are expected to destabilise.
When Adrian Martin says that short films bring about “aesthetic realm of astonishment, shock, strength, and impression,” he alludes to the sense of disruption implied by Rancière.7 Short films, he says, are like icebergs; they are crystalline artifices whose import “resonates and expands across time, in the spectators’ minds.”8 This disruption or sense of surprise is always contextual, bearing valences of the perspective of the viewer and the aesthetic-political field. Films with explicit political or radical content may not be formally inventive or bring about “surprises,” even as some of the shorts in the festival are remarkable in the political positions they take. For example, Katharina Voß’s Subject Spaces (Germany) deserves a place in the history of countercultural spaces in its accounts of a club in West Berlin that gave a voice to lesbian lives for a decade. Or, Olga Kosanović’s film, Comrade Tito, I Inherit (Germany), which recounts her struggle to return to her homeland in Serbia where her aging parents live, gives voice to many in diasporic situations torn between lives in two worlds. Anna Dasović interrogates the racist anti-Muslim perceptions of the Dutch troops meant to protect residents of Srebrenica in her short, Before the fall there was no fall. Episode 2-surfaces (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Netherlands). The film presents an issue that is already known – the callous indifference of the UN troops to the suffering of those they were supposed to protect. One would expect this to be particularly true in case of a festival audience that is already tuned into the broader perceptions of gender identity, diasporic cultural struggles, or recent wars in the Balkans. These films fall within the realm of the sensible, of what is familiar in formal and narrative dimensions. Such films have a value of their own but since they bear political charge on their sleeve, little if any work is delegated to the formal abilities of the film to break new ground.
The experimental and innovative dimension of short films can charge them with political agency as a “surprise”, investing in them the capacity to disrupt the realm of the sensible. Zhong su’s 8′ 28” (HangZhou, China; Principal Prize, International) uses the screen as a mixed tableau on which to inscribe multiple narratives of violence and bloodshed deeply imbibed in culture and history of the world. Human and animal figures in metal mingle with premodern and modern periods, while blood spills around them. The vertical pan which continues through the duration of the film brings into view TV monitor-screens that have recorded violence and death on the streets in reckless encounters between humans and machines. Objects and figures in the film have a rustic, unrefined quality to them, as if we are watching an animated graveyard of civilisations. Zhong does not spare erotic art, industrial brutality, religious iconography, popular culture worship of heroes, or the insatiable sexual hedonism of humans. The screen becomes a theatrical space where images and history appear to rush into view to join in the carnival of cruelty made possible by history. The film does not seek a closure but leaves the viewer with a restlessness that gives life to the images of the film.
Zhu Changquan’s I‘m Disguised, Right in Front of You (China), is constructed as a combination of animation, live action, and virtual-reality images to examine, as it were, an “intersubjective” relationship between the human-perceptual world and other sentient beings around us. A monkey at the centre of the film articulates and questions the impermanence of existence, the permeability between species, inviting the viewer into his world where he says, “you will be buried under the wonderwall if you keep bearing” skins of animals and other species, which it says, are “illusions” to hide the evil that besets us. The images of the film are disguises, like the skins of species that make us appear different from each other.
The embedding of the political into the formal elements of the film continues in Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s A Very Long Exposure Time (France; NRW Online Prize). When Lois Daguerre set up his camera on the street, capable of recording an object only if it appears for ten continuous minutes, only one man, who could afford to be still long enough to have his shoes polished, gets his presence imprinted in it, while others moving around him could not be recorded. Thus, the image belonged to the one who could posture with leisure. Subsequent technologies of image-capture set their own conditions for endowing objects with visibility, thus erasing major parts of human existence from the mechanism of recording. The holes in memory become invisible as the production of images proliferates our visual field. Galibert-Laîné’s essay presents only a residue of images, while the narration points to a discordant relationship between the innocence of the humans who use these technologies, entirely unaware of their destructive potential.
If these films use formal inventiveness as their strength to disrupt the sensible, a number of other films in competition achieve this disruption by embedding unexpected turns in the narratives. Adjani Arumpac’s Count (Philippines) begins when the filmmaker teaches lessons to her sons about counting. The camera dwells on the objects and spaces of the interior, as the family is engaged in everyday activities and online learning. Arumpac maintains the focus on the notion of numbers, the constitutive factor in counting. The world outside rushes in through TV news clips, sounds and memories of situations where counting and accounting led to losses and sufferings of humans. During the pandemic and the protests, counting the days and the dead became deeply connected. Arunpac weaves an effective tale of how the world outside rushes in, reinscribing the domestic life, creating an indelible blend of images, meanings, words, and memories.
The festival catalogue mentions Yudhijit Basu’s Kalsubai (India; Grand Online Prize of the City of Oberhausen) as an ethnographic film, which turns out to be a ruse for this intensely political film. Kalsubai, a Koli (fisherman in that part of India) woman volunteers to be a daughter to a childless couple, under two conditions: she would never get married, and although she would do any kind of work in the house, she would not pick up or clean any used dishes. When the second promise is broken, Kalsubai walks in rage to the mountains where she resides in a temple. Basu shoots the film in unmatted 1:33:1 ratio with rounded frames, to bring forth a world of staged events of mythological dimension (made famous by Lisandro Alonso’s 2014 film, Jauja). The colours of the landscape are subdued, with some scenes in light black-and-white. Folk songs and dances about the Kalsubai lore set up a rhythmic march to the narrative. The bright imagery comes in colour as women are doing housework and cleaning grain while sitting on the steps. A young girl plucks flowers on the hillside. The film directs us to a narrative centered on Kalsubai’s refusal to do any unwanted housework. Women’s independence is not simply in refusing to get married but also in rejecting demands for housework. Kalsubai’s anger is as much against patriarchy as it is against the menial labour to which millions of women are subjected, either as members of the family or as maids. Basu’s film ceases to be a folk tale consigned for novelties of a once-existing culture but becomes a clear-and-present call against the exploitation of women.
A number of films rupture the narrative flow and formal conventions to suggest a world of signification not directly invoked in the frames. In Lynne Sachs and Anne Lesley Selcer’s Girl is Presence (US), a series of disparate objects appear on the screen as the recitation of a poem of nouns is layered on the soundtrack. The connection between the two is optional, but an experimental narrative that emerges between them suggests how a girl experiences herself in thought within the walls in a pandemic. The relationship between the visual and the subjectivity comes into full play in Eszter Katalin’s Under the Shadow of Azkorri (Hungary), as she asks how we enter the space of the images that are both known and unknown to us. The film moves back and forth from relating to the images (one includes images from Miklós Jancsó’s Még kér a nép / Red Psalm, 1972) and the material encounters with objects (such as landscapes). The relationship with objects and images and our ambivalent relationship to them comes to a provocative state in Pavel Serdyukov’s Meetings-Episode 1 (Russia), as the director attempts to experiment with speculative realism to contemplate our Lacanian relationship to objects with Husserl’s notion of adumbration. The perceptual shift required – perhaps necessary during lockdowns – to instill life into objects, is within the realm of cinema, a medium that boasts its capacity to imagine as much as to bring materiality to life.
Attempts at questioning the relationship between the viewer and the image, or between the elements of film form (word, image, sound) shaped a number of films at the festival. Though innovative in their exploration of this relationship, these shorts do little to unsettle our expectations. Gustavo Jahn and Melissa Dullius’s camera becomes a subconscious flâneur while following a somnambulist flâneur in Raised from the Ground (Brazil-Germany; Special mention, German online); performance and presentation become deceptively interchangeable. In Ganza Moise’s Sensory Overload (Rwanda; Special mention, International), with a poem by Natacha Muzira narrated in the background, a woman considers a window on a bus as the portal of imagination, in which her memory, instability of life, fears of migration, merge into a “Bermuda triangle of consciousness.”
Considering the broad diversity of shorts in an expanded competition program, films that addressed the pandemic or the lockdown were smaller in number. It is likely that this global and historic experience will continue to shape filmmaking for years to come. Among the most notable dozen or so films on the pandemic, none is politically more incisive than John Smith’s Covid Messages (UK). In six episodes of a 22-minute-long film, Smith transforms press conferences by the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the COVID-19 crisis into biting satire. Smith himself begins the film by washing his hands for as long as it takes to sing “happy birthday” twice, following the Prime Minister’s suggestion. The Press conferences take place in dull, wood-panelled rooms, multicolour carpet, and with minimally functioning AV equipment. The PM stumbles, retracts, repeats, and apologises as crisis rages and casualties pile up. Merely presenting all this without any editorial intervention would have worked well – an obvious comi- tragedy of our time. But in Smith’s hands, it becomes a carnival stop where a ruler himself takes up the role of someone mocking him, switching the roles in voluntary subversion. In describing the clever inversion of the logic of the carnivalesque, whereby the carnivalesque is a mode of mockery and subversion of authority, philosopher Achille Mbembe writes about the rulers on the African continent who encouraged these subversive expressions and participated in the carnivalesque to create a new world of meanings. The rulers themselves would appropriate the carnivalesque to intervene to achieve desired control.9 In Smith’s interventions, the ruler has lost control of the carnival he created. There are allusions in the film to magic controlling the events; the victims of COVID-19 sabotaging the press conferences; and mysterious forces reducing him to a jester in charge. The “official” narrative shifts with minor tweaks, pushing the central personal off-the-cliff. Herein lies the value of short film. It can achieve much with minor twists and turns, interjections that are sharp and focused. The experimental can be a force of disrupting the sensible.
Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen online
1-10 May 2021
Festival website: https://www.kurzfilmtage.de/de/
- Lars Henrik Gass, “New Competitions 2021”, International Short Film Festival Oberhausen website. ↩
- Richard Brody, “Does Cinema Needs Short Films?” The New Yorker, 18th March 2014. ↩
- Steffanie Ling, To Be Crossed and Shattered: Solidarity as Disruption at the 67th International Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, Senses of Cinema, Issue 99, July 2021. ↩
- Call for entries for 2021, International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, 3rd November, 2020. ↩
- The European Short Film Network, ESFN, This Is Short, 1st April – 30th June 2021. ↩
- Dwaipayan Chowdhury with Jacques, “Disruptions – An Interview with Jacques Rancière”, Lateral: The Journal of Cultural Studies Association, Issue 8:1, spring 2019. ↩
- Adrian Martin, “Jumping from the feature-length bridge,” Empedocles: European Journal for the Philosophy of Communication, vol. 5, nos. 1 & 2, 2015, p. 21. ↩
- Ibid, p. 22. ↩
- Achille Mbembe, “Provisional Notes on the Postcolony,” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, vol. 62, no. 1, 1992, pp. 3-37. ↩