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To begin with, a brief note on the possibilities or impossibilities of film criticism within the ambit of festival reports. I have not written one in over half a decade and, while I continue to skim through a few of them in film journals, especially when written by those whose writings I value (a factor that probably supersedes my interest in the particular festival), I have generally thought of them as a slightly edited version of a festival program. Also, the fact that Internationale Kurzfilmtage is a junction of several currents – of curatorial interests and structured formats- where even though a Theme in every edition remains central to the programmation, a unifying curatorial arc remains elusive. This is true to the character of almost all film festivals and is in sharp contrast to curatorially compact Art Biennales for example. It therefore becomes doubly challenging to write an objective report that balances and counterbalances the different stakes that determine the overall program of a festival’s edition. In the face of such a challenge, I choose to take a short cut: to reflect on standout individual films as part of structured programs and, through it, paint a picture of my version of the festival. For a complete listing of all the programs and films, there is always the festival catalogue. 

Every year, Kurzfilmtage hosts a series of screenings by different distributors from around the world, allowing for them to showcase part of their collection. The networks of distribution, through which independent experimental films circulate, sometimes remain enshrouded from the general audience. This initiative provides a necessary corrective to that norm while also facilitating a platform for exchange between artists, curators and distributors. I will try and recount some of the memorable films among this year’s distributors’ screenings. 

The selection of films presented by Lightcone, Paris included ¿Se puede deletrear la hoja? (Can you spell the sheet?, 2022) by Valentina Alvarado Matos, a Venezuelan artist working in Spain. It is a garden film that reaches out to different experimental film traditions without being singularly impressionistic, essayistic or formally analytical. It is filmed in the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid and comprises close-ups of leaves (and their diagrams), flowers, petals, ants, hands and earth. A research based ecological and material interest is immediately apparent, as is an interest in gestures of the hand and its unique expressive possibilities, but perhaps what most interests the artist here is the rendering of these images without being descriptive. The voiceover maintains a curious relationship to the flow of images, it seemingly comments on them but conjures a narrative of its own. The volume alters, the recitation varies in speed, pausing to emphasise words like landscape (paisaje in Spanish), sometimes a sequence of words are read out serially, syllables of certain words echo followed by shallow singing, in between we hear murmurs and repetitions. The phonetic units of the Spanish language are allowed to register. The film becomes an exploratory journey not only through the garden and its flora and fauna but also through language and its determinants. 

Among the films presented by the London based distributor LUX, Maryam Tafakory’s Nazarbazi comprises excerpts from a dizzying array of Iranian films made between 1982 and 2010. The choice of the footage ranges from inserts to (melo-)dramatically saturated segments. The editing strategy shapes a complex web of interrelationships between consecutive shots, image and text, sound and image. Some of the text is excerpted from the poems of Forugh Farrokhzad, Ahmad Shamlou, Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber) and texts by Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Part of the footage is isolated from sound and text; the text appears both overlaid on an image or as an interlude on a dark background. The thematic thrust of the film is towards resonating the censorship of physical touch in post-revolution Iranian cinema via its multifarious, and often hilarious, aesthetic détournements. But not only, the film has at least two other significant achievements. It points to how gestures and formal choices are shaped by culture and politics. In terms of film history, it connects to the metahistorical impulse within the medium itself, further intensified by the advent of video, where film becomes a laboratory for framing, editing and politically probing the history of cinema, best exemplified by Jean-Luc Godard in Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988). 

Ertrunken

Ertrunken (Drowned, 2022), by Viennese filmmaker and photographer Friedl vom Gröller was packaged among other films by Austrian distributor, sixpackfilm. Here Gröller sings in a refreshingly casual and private voice, the entirety of the song Vom ertrunkenen Mädchen (The Drowned Girl) co-written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurl Weill, echoing Rimbaud’s poem, Ophelia. In a filmmaking career that now spans over 70 finished films, this film is a rarity since it is one with sound. In the three-minute-long film (equivalent to one 16mm film roll, as is the length of many of her films), the monochromatic visuals contain a few establishing frames, that of a canal, followed by the flowing water and, for a brief moment (lasting 4-5 seconds), silhouette of a corpse gliding through it as the water reflects the shining sun. Following that, for almost the next ninety seconds, we see changing topographies of foam on the river surface against which most of the song plays out. Once it is finished, the film ends with Gröller’s face submerged in water with eyes closed. What seems like a straightforward attempt at adaptation, is more of a personal expression of admiration for a poem, and another addition to the corpus of her water stream films in recent years – Leonardo (2020), Sacrificio per la sirena (Sacrifice for the mermaid, 2020) and Ticino (2017). 

Friedl Vom Gröller (previously Friedl Kubelka) founded the Friedl Kubelka school for Independent films in 2006. The film school is a first of its kind in Vienna, and focuses on analogue filmmaking. It came into being at a time when digital workflows were beginning to decisively shift the paradigms of filmmaking, from shooting to post-processing, everywhere including in Austria where, prior to that, somewhat uniquely in the European landscape, a national tradition of Experimental film had blossomed, largely by the efforts of two generations of formidable artists and filmmakers. Kurzfilmtage invited the school to present a selection of films made by its attendants. I will mention two films that stood out for me. 

Viktoria Schmid’s A proposal to project in 4:3 (2016) is a recording of a single screen-sculpture of two wooden piles and a white canvas that she built and installed during an Artist in Residency Program in California. This screen is then filmed during the course of a day, from possibly five different positions (though not certainly since at least two of the close-up configurations could have been a result of zooming in) and by using time-lapse, the later allowing for the dramatics of light and shadows from the neighbouring greenery to be played out on the screen by accelerating time’s passage. Schmid’s installation is in itself an articulation of the natural aesthetics of cinema – the proto-cinematic shadow plays in the non-human milieux, a phenomenon that has already inspired threads of philosophical thought running through the writings of many, from Kracauer to Eisenstein. The accompanying sound stream in the film is probably field recordings from the same site but certainly asynchronous. In its incapacity to record both sound and image in their blissful natural harmony and temporal scale, the medium’s limitation in simultaneously sampling this natural cinema and delineating its dramaturgical potential is underscored. Schmid has gone on to produce a series of films and installations using screens with different aspect ratios as part of the Proposals to project series, reminding us of Morgan Fisher’s Scratched Aspect Ratio Pieces (2005), an installation of nine mirrors, each sized according to different standards of film screen dimensions. 

Austrian Pavilion

 In the other remarkable film from the program, using specially designed site-sensitive and architecturally responsive cameras, Philipp Fleischmann in Austrian Pavilion (2019) filmed one of the main venues of the Venice Biennale – the Giardini. This camera, shaped as a wooden arched gate, exposes 35mm film laid along its curvature; the duration of the film is determined by the dimension of this structure. The result on projection is a flickering film that renders the spatial details of the architectural space – the walls, the ceiling, the windowpanes, the trees outside, achieved through what seems to be a camera, recording, while sweeping along the curvature of this built structure – as alluding to the motion of film passing through a projector gate. In a number of films now, starting with Main Hall (2013), Fleischmann has managed to eschew a banal representation of the architectures, their histories and politics, that interest him, in favour of a conceptually precise and formally concrete method that challenges passive processing of images. 

From the films in the international competition, I have two clear winners. Ecology and mythology enmesh in so it came about by California based artist, Charlotte Pryce. Pryce’s films, often miniature science fiction, function as conduits between the micro and macro worlds that exist on different perceptual planes. Meticulously crafted with saturated colours, the images combine hand processed 16mm footage, Super8 shots and magic lantern slides. Using narration to lend a fabulistic character to her film, following hot on the heels of her magic lantern performance, The Tears of a Mudlark (2018) and her last film Of This Beguiling Membrane (2020), Pryce retells the story of Persephone via naturalistic, processed and animated images, shifting between real settings and dream fantasies. The film was conceived by Pryce during the pandemic years when she noted how the transmission of the virus between the animal and human world shared proximity to folkloric narratives with secret passages between worlds in separate realms of fancies. 

In the other film from the competition, Sasha Pirker’s gewesen sein wird (will have been, 2022), we get a guided tour of the apartment of Viennese artist and architect, Heinz Frank (who passed away in 2020), by his daughter Lilli Breuer-Guttmann. Filmed in 16mm, the film allows for the registration of the eccentricities and peculiarities of the apartment, its layout, the colour tones, the objects, fabrics and furniture that embody in good measure the artistic temperament of Frank himself. The film deploys strategies of portraiture (for both, Breuer-Guttmann and the interiors of the apartment). The still life shots of the different corners of the house are the most remarkable. The study of the place via the film is fragmented; it’s hard to connect the frames into a spatially coherent whole. This fragmentation is carried over into the soundtrack, where the voice of Breuer-Guttmann is intercepted by silence or drone sounds by composer and sound designer Stefan Németh. By steering clear of any obvious formal strategy, like allowing Breuer-Guttmann to speak directly into the camera, Pirker is able to carry some of Frank’s enigmatic art and persona right into the heart of the film’s experience for a viewer.   

Every year, via its Profile programs, the festival showcases the trajectory of an artist’s career, both contemporary and historical. The centrepiece of this edition were three programs dedicated to the films and projections of Belgian artist extraordinaire, Marcel Broodthaers, curated by Xavier Garcia Bardon in close collaboration with Maria Gilissen Broodthaers, the artist’s collaborator on a number of projects and widow. Marcel Broodthaers made approximately fifty films, most of them miniatures, between 1957 and his death in 1976. Two of the programs were presented in a conventional theatre setting while for the third, three special screens were installed at Verein für aktuelle Kunst that differed in a fundamental way – they weren’t neutrally white. They were either painted on with text, or in one case, displayed a world map. In 1971, Marcel Broodthaers had set up the Section Cinéma in the fictional Musée d’Art Moderne turning his own studio in Dusseldörf into a museum. Here Broodthaers used one of the walls as a projection surface. Part of this wall was painted white where Broodthaers would sometimes hang a world map and project films on it. 

On the white surface of the wall, Broodthaers painted white rectangles with inscriptions- “fig 12”, “fig 2”, “fig 1” and “fig A” on which he would project his own films such as Charlie as a movie star (1970) and Brussels Part II (1970). To recount this historically significant projection condition, a special screen with these painted inscriptions was hung at the installation space in Oberhausen to project these films. Arriving at film as a medium from an interest in language by way of poetry and three-dimensional objects, Broodthaers sought to harmonise the three at the level of the image. For Le Corbeau et le Renard (The Crow and the Fox, 1967), he felt that the typographic characters of the Jean de La Fontaine text on which the work is based, simply printed on film and projected on a neutrally white screen in the presence daily objects (such a bottle of milk, boots or a telephone) failed to integrate the image and the object sufficiently in order to deny each their autonomy. “I would have to print on the screen the same typographic characters I had used in the film”, he had said in an interview. For the installation at Oberhausen, a screen with the painted text from La Fontaine with a dimension of 161 x 218 cm was set up. 

Berlin or a dream with cream

In the conventional setting, some rare films were combined with some of the “classics”. Broodthaers’ post-minimal films display a strong interest in the history of art and its relationship to institutions and exhibition environments. Sometimes, they are deliberately anachronistic (Un film de Charles Baudelaire (A Film by Charles Baudelaire), 1970) while all of them are symptomatic of a late modernism that evades assimilation into avant-garde umbrellas of the time, instead echoing affinity to Surrealist (Buñuel), Slapstick-Anarchist (Keaton, Chaplin, Vigo) and plastic-montagist (Gance, Méliès) modes of historical non-industrial filmmaking. One of the most gorgeously shot films by Broodthaers shown was Berlin oder ein Traum mit Sahne (Berlin or a dream with cream, 1974). It combines elements of quasi-surrealism with slapstick. The film was shot when the artist was in the city on a DAAD scholarship and was shown as part of a solo exhibition devoted to Broodthaers at the Nationalgalerie, Berlin in 1975. Here we witness a blue parrot turn into red during the course of Broodthaers’ nap who then wakes up to read a newspaper through a dollop of cream on his glasses. In the scenery that unfolds outside the window, we see a boat sail through. Sailing and marine themes, elsewhere via objects such as painting, postcards, books, magic lantern slides and photographs, is a recurring motif for Broodthaers. In A Film by Charles Baudelaire, Broodthaers stages a film that Baudelaire could have made about his passage across the Pacific in 1841. Postcards of stormy seas and sailing boats almost exclusively form the subject matter for three of his films- Histoire d’amour (Love Story, 1971), Chère petite soeur (La Tempête) (Dear Little Sister (The Tempest), 1972) and Mauritania (1972). In a series of three more films that follow these, Broodthaers explored photograph, book and magic lantern slides of sailing boats to first study a painting, its colours, strokes and spatial aspects (Analyse d’une peinture (Analysis of a painting), 1973), temporalize it (A Voyage on the North Sea, 1974) and eventually narrativize it (The Last Voyage, 1974). 

Another important artist in Focus in this edition was New York based Lynne Sachs, who has been a veteran of four decades of filmmaking that lies at the intersection of poetry, feminism and essayistic and experimental approach to moving image. One of the most remarkable films made by her in the early 1990s is The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts (1991). It is a highly accomplished work that reappropriates found footage from scientific films and Hollywood narrative drama, manipulates pace and texture of footage- a rolling nude woman in the desert- via the optical printer and alternates positive and negative imagery. Further on, it uses animation, written textual interjection (quotations and journal entries) and voice over narration, to mount a radical critique of the institutionally perpetuated and patriarchally determined understanding of womanhood. Its formal flamboyance and rich feminist dedication simultaneously recall the films of Gunvor Nelson and Yvonne Rainer. 

One of the sections of the festival that, over a few editions since 2018, continues to throw up marginal films from the yesteryears, reflecting on the curatorial ambition of the festival, its archival history, and its explicit and implicit politics is the re-selected series of films (re-selected with r in lower case and thankfully, not re-“discovered”). This section was researched and programmed by Tobias Hering who collaborated with a number of other filmmakers, scholars and curators to define the context for each of the five programs in this section. 

The Horse

A film, from one of these programs, that continues to prevail is LA Rebel Charles Burnett’s 13-minute tour de force, The Horse (1973), a film that had earlier won a prize at Oberhausen in 1979. Exceptionally poignant and narratively sparse, it is reliant entirely on decoupage for accumulation of dramatic tension. Landscape, ranch, barn, closeups of the horse, person sitting head down in a red stairway, a hand holding a gun, the horse sipping water – the film sutures an array of exquisitely framed shots to build up to the cathartic finale, already anticipated, of the horse being shot, expressed sonically and through the freeze frame of the boy shielding his senses. Billy Woodberry’s genuinely touching film, The Pocketbook (1980) accompanied it, but sitting in the cinema right then, I had my cinephilic pipe dream, a triple bill to kill for: Barn Rushes (Larry Gottheim, 1971), The Horse and Hard Core (Walter de Maria, 1969), in that order. 

On the last day of the festival, May 1st, a program was devoted to the solo films of Jean-Marie Straub (May 1 also marks the birth anniversary of Straub’s long-time collaborator and wife, Danièle Huillet) who passed away in November last year. Huillet and Straub’s Machorka-Muff (1963) was screened in Oberhausen, out of competition, in 1963. One of the films in the program, Itinéraire de Jean Bricard (2008) was the last film script the artist duo collaborated on, and the first finished by Jean-Marie Straub after Huillet’s death in 2006. Recalling the river films of Peter Nestler, namely Am Siel (1963) and Die Donau Rauf (1969), to whom the film is dedicated to, the film begins with a long tracking shot of Coton Island – the setting for French sociologist Jean-Yves Petiteau’s text from which the films borrows its title. Filmed in autumn and with barren tree branches in the winter light, the accompanying soundtrack for this section is the running motor and the asterning water of the sail where the camera filming the island is placed. Straub’s militant devotion to sync sound once again comes to the fore. In a series of shots that follow, we register details of the island largely by the use of still framing or unidirectional pans. A hallmark of Straub’s (and Huillet’s) cinema has been a quest for an objective realism that thinks through the spectrum of aesthetic and political implications of the camera’s positioning in relation to the profilmic, an anti-naturalism of the most profound kind. Coton Island played host to Nazi occupation in 1944 and several resistance movements in its wake. 

Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen
26 April – 1 May
Festival Website: https://www.kurzfilmtage.de