The Oberhausen International Short Film Festival
by Richard Porton

René Vautier’s Afrique 50

René Vautier’s Afrique 50

The Oberhausen International Short Film Festival, probably best known for launching the New German Cinema when young filmmakers gathered to protest the hidebound films of their elders and issue the Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962, is an amiable, intimate event held in a rather sleepy city near Düsseldorf. Even for experienced film festivalgoers, there is a certain period of adjustment required to view programs composed exclusively of short films—attention spans have to be recalibrated, so to speak. While it soon becomes evident that the quality of the films is as uneven as at festivals devoted to features, the fact that all of the screenings are held in a centralized multiplex makes Oberhausen a much less arduous experience than other festivals.

Despite being a rather casual, almost academic festival in certain respects, the prizes, especially for films in the International Competition, are given a place of pride. As in most festivals, the prizewinners at Oberhausen’s 2008 edition turned out to be a mixed bag. Oddly enough, although fiction shorts tend to receive more ink than documentaries (perhaps because they are occasionally used a calling cards for directors itchy to make the move to features), the documentaries on display proved more alluring for most of the audiences, critics, and judges in attendance.

Alina Rudnitskaya’s Vixen Academy, for example, won one of the two “Principal Prizes” in the International Competition and was cited “for its poignant reflections on the reconstruction of femininity in post-Communist Russia.” The jury’s commendation in fact comes off as a rather humorless rationale for a film that appears to both want to regale audiences with the absurdity of a school that teaches young women how to snag men by prancing around in lingerie and eating bananas lasciviously— and then puritanically scolds them for enjoying the prurient aspects of the academy’s farcical sexism. It’s true that the retrograde sexual politics espoused by the “vixen academy” (which seems suspiciously like a parody, but is, sadly, all too real) corresponds to what might be termed the “reconstruction of femininity” in a country transcending a repressive past and embracing a present that is arguably little better. It’s difficult to know whether one should laugh or gag when confronted with a palpably nutty male instructor who exhorts his charges to use Lolita as a sex manual. Yet, since Rudnitskaya’s vérité account lacks any context that might help non-Russians comprehend the disturbing caricature of female wiles proffered by this ludicrous school, it primarily functions more as “infotainment” than true documentary—not to mention a source of cheap laughs.

Much blunter, and infinitely more subversive, Eva Jiricka’s six-minute Gratis Punch might appear like little more than a throwaway prank. Jiricka’s sly provocation, however, zeroes in on deep-seated cultural anxieties with great precision. According to the filmmaker, she and her collaborators “made fifty liters of punch and offered it for free at various Christmas fairs in Vienna. The performance was meant to provoke, focusing not only on the reaction of the customer but also on the reaction of the sellers themselves.” The sellers react, quite predictably, with unmitigated outrage. Christmas punch, meant to spread holiday cheer, ends up exposing the territorial nature of the free-lance entrepreneurs, whose business is of course threatened by the antics of the free-lance pranksters. It also lays waste to the entire concept of seasonal amiability.

Pavel Medvedev’s The Unseen (which won the FIPRESCI prize) offers a more low key variant of sardonicism in the guise of a more traditional documentary. Medvedev’s deadpan glimpse at the autocratic policies imposed on the local populace during the 2006 G8 Summit in St. Petersburg is a subtly scathing commentary on the obtuseness of contemporary political leadership. Eschewing voice-over commentary, Medvedev skewers the political class and their callous imperial stance—not only the authoritarian Putin—but, also, unsurprisingly, the buffoonish Bush, who compliments Putin on the décor at the summit but seems characteristically out of his depth. As the leaders confer at the Constantine Palace in Streina, where the G8 leaders make one fatuous pronouncement after another, demonstrators’ efforts in St. Petersburg are squelched before their incipient protests can even take place. In an attempt to create a thoroughly antiseptic political Disneyland, the authorities close the cemeteries, implying that even the dead threaten the bogus equilibrium of the political charade being staged for the benefit of the international media.

One of the most refreshing aspects of Oberhausen’s programming is its willingness to provide alternatives to contemporary films and competitions (in addition to the International Competition, shorts are included in separate competitions for German and childrens’ films) and showcase older films in retrospectives that are fundamentally pedagogical in nature. In 2008, two sidebars—“Border Crossers and Trouble-Makers” (curated by filmmakers Sherry Millner and Ernest Larsen) and “Whose History” (curated by Ian White of the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London)—canvassed avant-garde political cinema of approximately the last fifty years and assembled programs of often intriguingly interlinked radical shorts with various thematic foci. Larsen and Millner presented an eclectic grab bag of underground, or quasiunderground, films that expressed the esthetic imperatives of (following the definition of “imperfect cinema” formulated by the Cuban filmmaker and theorist Julio Garcia Espinosa) “those who struggle… people who think and feel and exist in a world which they can change.”

The loose rubrics of “struggle” and “change” inspired programs such as “Learning Process,” which paired Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s En Rachâchant (1982), an adaptation of a Marguerite Duras story exalting a small boy’s disdain for his school’s educational agenda and Dee Dee Halleck’s Church of Stop Shopping Confronts Gentrification (2008), in which comedian (or, if you prefer, performance artist) Reverend Billy comes to the aid of a shopkeeper threatened with eviction by a heartless landlord. “Mnemonic Devices,” another Larsen/Millner program with some startling cinematic juxtapositions included both Sia Screed #16 (2002), actress (and, yes, another performance artist, alas) Sharon Hayes’s verbatim recitation of a leaden missive issued by Patty Hearst after her kidnapping and Carole Roussopoulos and Delphine Seyrig’s S.C.U.M Manifesto (1976), a seemingly earnest tribute to the outlaw radical feminist (and would-be assassin of Andy Warhol) which features Seyrig dictating Valerie Solanas’s notorious tract (that gives the film its name and was for years unavailable in France) to Roussopoulos, an efficient typist.

Some of this archival scavenging proved rather hit and miss: strong films were often on bills with mere curiosities. René Vautier’s Afrique 50 (1950) was perhaps the most seminal film revived by Larsen and Millner’s sidebar. Banned in France for over forty years (and only rarely screened in the United States), Vautier’s seventeen-minute documentary has been termed the “first anti-colonial film in history” and there is little doubt that its uncompromising indictment of French imperial arrogance in Africa prevented it from receiving the attention it deserved in its country of origin.

Although White’s “Whose History?” programs had a similarly radical orientation, many of the films belonged to a decidedly more hard-core, and arguably more insular, avant-garde tradition. Perhaps exemplary (or not, depending on one’s viewpoint) in this respect was the screening of British experimental filmmaker Malcolm Le Grice’s Castle One (1966), a found footage movie in which a light bulb placed in front of the screen served as (according to the director) a “Brechtian device to make the spectator aware of himself.” Le Grice, who engaged in a lively colloquy with the audience after the screening, recalled an odd, perverse moment in the history of the avant-garde in which an extreme aversion to narrative was coupled with militant Marxism. Whether one regards this tradition as quaint, valuable, or slightly ridiculous, it was still instructive to hear Le Grice’s rationale for a political cinema that was, by design, hermetic and defiantly “unpopular.”

Oberhausen also sponsored several afternoon panel discussions in an informal space that allowed audience members to sip beer or coffee while pondering the topic de jour. Perhaps the most pertinent of these roundtables was entitled “Embedded Criticism?” The Dutch critic Dana Linssen suggested in the panel’s synopsis that “(F) ilm critics are like war reporters. Not only do they dangerously report from the front lines of cinema; at the same time they seem to get more and more embedded by the industry.” The discussion, a very genial exchange between Linssen, German critic Rüdiger Suchsland, Yana Kostova, a curator and critic based in Sofia,  and Canadian editor and programmer Mark Peranson, examined whether the insidious lure of becoming “embedded” even extends to writers for small magazines covering art films—or whether hardened journalists might be softened by eating dinner with a famous director. The general drift of the conversation hinted that total critical purity and detachment might be an impossible, and even undesirable, goal. But since at least some of us in attendance had our hotel accommodations, and at least part of our air fare, paid by the festival we were there to assess and critique, the good-natured debate allowed a few moments of salutary reflection and self-examination.

Copyright © 2008 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.