The 55th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen (Web Exclusive)
by Jared Rapfogel

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Emerald, one of two of his short films screened at Oberhausen

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Emerald, one of two of his short films screened at Oberhausen

The International Short Film Festival Oberhausen represents, among many other things, an invitation to reflect on the realm of the short film, a world in which many of the assumptions conventionally directed towards the feature film are suspended, reversed, or complicated. Whereas the world of the feature film seems comparatively easy to categorize and comprehend—with fictional narratives dominant, and the vast majority of features produced for a commercial market of some kind, whether mainstream or more specialized (documentaries and “art films”)—the short film constitutes a much slipperier, more multifaceted category. The form encompasses narrative shorts, to be sure—often essentially minifeatures, sometimes intended as a stepping stone to feature production—as well as documentaries. But it is also a form that has proven far more conducive than the feature to the production of radically small-scale, avant-garde, or artist films, whether diary or montage works, formal experiments, or even hand-painted or otherwise camera-less films. The avant-garde represents a tradition, a community, and a set of practices largely distinct from both feature and other modes of short filmmaking (indeed, though these films are, more often than not, less than feature-length, within the avant-garde community they would never be referred to as “short films,” precisely because within this world the short film format is the dominant one). And this is not even to broach the topic of the music video, another manifestation of the short film, with its own history and set of attributes.

The oldest short film festival in the world, Oberhausen has been a showcase for these various iterations of the form for well over five decades, and today it continues to survey an incredibly diverse spectrum of films. In a festival of multiple individual sections, the main ring is devoted to the various competition categories—International, German, North Rhine-Westphalia, Children and Youth Cinema, and MuVi (the music video section, itself divided into German and International selections)—as well as an annual thematically-organized section, which this year was entitled “Unreal Asia.” A brief, unscientific sampling of the International Competition (as well as reports from several colleagues) failed to dispel the sense that the most challenging, rewarding films in the festival lay elsewhere—despite including a (very slight and disappointing) film by the great (and usually dependable) Jia Zhangke, the program I saw was dominated by mediocre films and was assembled with no discernible rhyme or reason. Still, my focus elsewhere prevented me from seeing enough of the Competition programs to judge fairly. And the presence of films by filmmakers such as Fred Worden, Jem Cohen, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (whose A Letter to Uncle Boonmee was the festival’s big prizewinner, but which screened after I had departed Oberhausen), and Robert Frank (whose True Story was another prizewinner) suggests that other programs might have made a stronger impact.

I missed most of the “Unreal Asia” section as well, though here too several gifted filmmakers were included—Amir Muhammad, John Torres, and once again, Weerasethakul (represented by a pair of films). The single program I was able to see—entitled “Thanatasia: Restless Souls”—featured four nonfiction films on the theme of death, none of which were terribly memorable in their own right, but whose thematic interconnections rendered the program more than the sum of its parts, a rarely-achieved but impressive curatorial accomplishment.

Nevertheless, this year the most rewarding parts of the festival were to be found on the margins, in the more specialized sections devoted to the celebration or discovery of particular filmmakers (the artists so anointed included Japanese avant-garde luminary Toshio Matsumoto, the Mexican documentarist Nicholas Echevarria, the Russian duo working under the name Factory of Found Clothes, and the German experimental filmmaker Herbert Fritsch), in the programs representing a slew of small, avant-garde-oriented distributors from across the world (I saw programs curated by Chicago’s Video Data Bank, London’s Lux, New York’s Electronic Arts Intermix, and Berlin’s Arsenal), and above all in the three revelatory programs devoted to what was identified as the Sarajevo Documentary School.

I found myself most eagerly anticipating the programs devoted to Matsumoto, a filmmaker who is among the Japanese avant-garde’s most important figures—his work spans the 1950s to the present day, and encompasses short films and features (such as the key Japanese New Wave film, Funeral Parade of Roses ), industrial films and poetic documentaries, structuralist investigations and politically-charged works, and radical experiments in multiple-screen filmmaking and video (a medium Matsumoto embraced very early on).

Important as Matsumoto is though, the three programs of his work proved, paradoxically, to be both fascinating and rather wearying, illustrating some of the challenges of screening the work of a filmmaker as prolific, varied, and yet as methodical in his investigations as Matsumoto proves to be. The first program in particular suffered from an overemphasis on his video work, tracing the arc of his involvement in the medium. While none of these films were without interest, his video works do not represent his most valuable, lasting accomplishments. While they demonstrate his openness to new media and his genuine search for new forms of image-making and seeing, they also reflect an artist intoxicated with, and devoted to exploring, the new technological tools at his disposal. In each of these films, Matsumoto takes a fairly straightforward visual subject—a urinal (à la Duchamp), the Mona Lisa, a cloudy sky, a modernist building—and manipulates it electronically, changing the resolution, color, and background-foreground relationship, dividing the image into strips and squares-within-squares, and overlaying graphic elements. The spectacle of an artist familiarizing himself with a new medium is an interesting one, but the experiments in these films register now as dated, hermetic ones. And this first program’s inclusion of a number of very closely related films, in each of which Matsumoto extends his experimentation in new directions, but whose similarities are much greater than their variations, made for a repetitive experience, one that may have made more sense on paper than it did in practice.

Nevertheless, for those of us without a comprehensive knowledge of Matsumoto’s work, there were revelations embedded in the programs, especially in the latter two: the documentary shorts from early in his career, the two remarkable films commissioned by the Japanese bicycle industry and the energy company Kansai ( Bicycle of Dreams andRecord of a Long White Line ), and above all Matsumoto’s three-projector masterpiece, For My Crushed Right Eye, a kaleidoscopic montage of imagery of social transformation and conflict, political protest, and pop culture, all densely edited and presented as two images projected side-by-side, with a third overlapping image occasionally coming into play as well, adding a further layer of visual and rhythmic complexity. A disturbing but exhilarating work of great vitality and dynamism, For My Crushed Right Eye finds Matsumoto’s social commitment and formal experimentation in perfect harmony.

Unquestionably the highlight of the festival, though, was the Sarajevo Documentary School section, which achieved in spades exactly what the retrospective programming at any festival most dearly aspires to: the discovery of an unjustly neglected and richly rewarding corner of film history. Gathering together twenty short documentary films produced in Bosnia-Herzegovina by the Sutjeska Film Company between 1964 and 1984, these programs revealed a vital and vibrant school of documentary filmmaking, a series of films forming a mosaic of Yugoslavian society during this period. Whether documenting the processes involved in various industrial labors (stone-breaking, charcoal gathering, or most dramatically, the construction of high-tension electric wires), sketching portraits of particular figures (an eccentric gooseherd or a solitary yet dedicated housekeeper), or highlighting social problems (the relocation of workers from country to city, families left behind by those seeking work abroad, or the enforcement of compulsory education), every one of the fifteen shorts I saw (to my great disappointment, I had to miss the third and final program) qualified as a small gem of observation, cinematic construction, and note-perfect tonal mastery. And these programs were a pleasure not only for the sheer quality on display, but also for their variety—of subject matter, style, mood, and rhythm—a variety that nonetheless was anchored by a remarkably consistent and distinctive tone.

The Sarajevo films are reminiscent in certain ways of the films of the British Documentary Movement, which also aimed at portraying the life, work, and spirit of a whole nation. The most exquisite and poetic of the Sarajevo films bear a distinct resemblance to films such as Harry Watt and Basil Wright’s Night Mail or Humphrey Jennings’sListen to Britain. But the differences are significant, and from the perspective of a Westerner with certain preconceptions of life under a communist regime, fairly surprising. The British Documentary Movement films, sublime as so many of them are, were engineered to promote the nation, to sustain morale, and to inspire faith in the smooth functioning of the war effort and of British society in general. You might well expect the same propagandistic goals in the Sarajevo films, but in fact they consistently display an unmistakably critical perspective, as well as a deeply-rooted concern for the (particularly rural-dwelling) poor. Indeed, the most remarkable feature of these films is their tone, a finely modulated balance between a seemingly neutral, bemused lightheartedness, and a persistent, barely veiled focus on the cracks, flaws, hypocrisies, and absurdities to be found in Yugoslavian society.

To be sure, the first two programs included a couple of films which dispensed with even the pretense of light-heartedness. A Roof over One’s Head is a film of explicit advocacy on behalf of those who, unable to wait any longer for housing in the cities, have erected illegal homes on the outskirts of town, only to have their new homes threatened with demolition. Even more heartbreaking is At the Meal, a meditation on the families left behind by workers seeking jobs abroad, struggling to get by without the support, practical or emotional, of their husbands and fathers.

But these films were the exceptions to the rule. The critical perspectives of most of the films were couched in the terms of a lyrical, comical, and sometimes outright satirical approach. Some of the finest examples of this delicate balance were Walking School ChildrenDreamers, and Two Laws, all three genuinely funny yet deeply sensitive and serious films. Walking School Children, a charming, affectionate portrait of young school children forced to walk (or hitchhike) many miles to reach their schools, displays an almost Chaplinesque mastery of the poignantly comic. Whether focusing on the children’s hitchhiking strategies (some of them wear signs aimed at passing drivers which read, “I’m going to school, 12km away—please give me a lift”) or their transportation-related daydreaming (one tired student is glimpsed absent-mindedly drawing a bus), the film is at once richly comic and deeply (but never heavy-handedly) serious, an ode to children forced to expend more energy simply getting to school than many of their schoolmates do in class.

Dreamers is a sadder film, focusing as it does on urban street kids left to fend (and often steal) for themselves, but it too achieves its seriousness indirectly, adopting an ostensibly comic tone and mirroring the kids’ unselfpitying attitude towards their lives. Scored to a couple of witty, original songs about life on the streets (one an ode to stealing), Dreamers doesn’t belabor the tragic aspect of the kids’ lives, focusing instead on little, often comic vignettes (establishing a rhyme between the kids hitching rides on the city’s trams and the cowboys on horseback in the Western films they sneak in to see; or showing the kids fantasizing about the exotic locales depicted in a travel-agency window), and letting the grimness of their lives sneak up on us.

Two Laws is a more genuinely comic film, but its comedy is founded on a phenomenon that could just as easily be treated seriously. Set in a rural community, it portrays the conflict between the two laws in question—the modern law of compulsory schooling on the one hand, and on the other, the more deeply-rooted local tradition according to which young girls are expected to stay at home to help with work in the house and on the land. Two Laws depicts the collision between these two opposing conceptions of the social role of young girls and the often hilariously heated resistance the representatives of the state encounter as they try to institute a law which, however well intended, flies in the face of a longstanding way of life. As they encounter passionate protests, from both kids (to whom the idea of being taken away from their homes seems like an unjust and arbitrary one) and parents (who are furious at having the state deprive them of much-needed assistance), the government officials seem flabbergasted and unprepared, confused in the face of a self-evidently progressive theory running aground on the shoals of social reality.

This portrayal of state representatives as out-of-touch with and oblivious to life outside the cities recurs throughout the Sarajevo films, and is especially striking since the films were produced by a state-financed studio. The theme is conspicuous in two of the most explicitly satirical films in the program: The Tenancy Rights of Safer the Miner and Izmet Kosica’s Mission. The first addresses the system by which rural workers are relocated to and housed in the city, a subject that may not seem ripe for comedy, but which the film reveals as deeply absurd (alluding to the point system by which the size and quality of each family’s apartment is determined, Safer the Miner introduces the members of his family to the audience not by name, but by the point value they each represent). Safer the Miner portrays this system as a bureaucratic nightmare, one that displaces families from their land and deposits them in impersonal beehivelike workers’ residences, leaving them isolated and rootless. The broadness of its comedy belies the sharpness of its critique, but the sadness of the final image—a close-up of Safer and his family waving from the balcony of their new home, before a slow zoom out gradually renders them barely-visible specks atop a dehumanizing apartment block—is unmistakable.

Izmet Kosica’s Mission is an even more broadly comic film, a portrait of a stiff-backed civil servant whose “mission” is to scour the countryside—where he appears ridiculously out-of-place—recruiting young women as factory workers. Bawdy and mischievous (the film wrings laughs out of Izmet’s growing army of nubile young women, who he’s not necessarily averse to peeping at as they shower), Izmet Kosica’s Mission takes the theme of the clueless, alienated urban bureaucrat to its extreme, as Izmet stumbles awkwardly across the countryside in his suit and tie. But it also picks up the theme of Safer the Miner, observing with a bemused but critical gaze the process of displacing people from their rural communities to feed the demands of urban industry.

But whatever the balance between earnestness, sadness, comedy, and indignation, every one of these films is a model of small-scale filmmaking. And many of them are simply exquisite: Heave Ho!, a fascinating, beautifully edited essay on the process of harvesting stone from a quarry; Emperor’s Day, an illuminating portrait of payday, as workers throughout the city engage in various ways of spending their hard-earned cash; High Voltage Electricians, a mind-blowing, unforgettable film depicting the science-fiction-like spectacle of workers constructing high-voltage electrical lines and towers across a vast valley (scored to an elaborate prog-rock soundtrack that seems hilariously dated at first, but is ultimately hypnotic); and finally, One Day in the Life of Rajko Maksim and Đurđa, both gorgeous, wordless (aside from their narration), impossibly sensitive portraits of solitary figures, the former an eccentric gooseherd in a small village, the latter a spinster housekeeper among woodworkers.

The revelatory nature of the Sarajevo Documentary School programs redounded to the credit of this year’s festival, but also highlighted the importance of Oberhausen over the decades—from the perspective of the festival, these programs were not a “discovery” at all, but rather a celebration of one facet of its own history. This was, after all, hardly the first time these films had screened at Oberhausen—throughout the Sixties and Seventies, the festival was showcasing many of them as they were released, providing one of the most crucial international platforms for these filmmakers. As much as any press release or promotional brochure, the greatness of the Sarajevo Documentary School programs provided ample and compelling proof of Oberhausen’s rich history, and its continuing commitment to the art of the short film, in all its myriad forms.

Jared Rapfogel is a member of the Cineaste editorial board and film programmer at Anthology Film Archives in New York City.

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine