The 2013 Oberhausen International Short Film Festival
by Jared Rapfogel
The International Short Film Festival Oberhausen’s focus on short films, a generally marginalized category of filmmaking, is in a way reflected in the festival’s location in the Ruhrgebiet, a dense urban conglomeration within the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, that was once Germany’s industrial heartland. Like the American rust belt, the cities and towns of the Ruhrgebiet fell on hard times in the latter half of the twentieth century, and few of them display the Old-World attractiveness that would make them tourist destinations—the landscape is predominantly a gritty, functional one. But it’s nevertheless a region of extraordinary cultural richness and historical interest, and the extent to which the increasingly obsolete industrial infrastructure has been brilliantly repurposed—transformed into museums, parks, and cultural centers—puts the United States’ near-total neglect of our own industrial heritage to shame. The Ruhrgebiet is teeming with contemporary art museums, galleries, theaters, and, above all, defunct factories that have become monuments to the history, architecture, and science of coal and steel production (museums that acknowledge the horror that underlies German industry in the first half of the twentieth century). Oberhausen itself is admittedly fairly barren, nearly devoid of interesting sites (aside from a stunning Art Deco town hall, and the Gasometer, a huge, towering gas tank that’s been converted, like so many other structures in the Ruhrgebiet, into a tribute to industrial architecture, and is currently the site of a remarkable Christo & Jeanne-Claude installation, Big Air Package: www.gasometer.de/en/exhibitions/current-exhibition). But its dearth of attractions ensures that there are no distractions from the festival itself. And it is surrounded by a whole host of towns bearing a wealth of cultural treasures, including Essen, Wuppertal, Dortmund, Duisburg, and Bochum. Once a year, the Oberhausen Film Festival joins the ranks of these remarkable but underheralded cultural attractions, calling attention to a form of filmmaking—the short film—that is as frequently ignored and underestimated as the region itself.
Whereas last year’s edition of the festival was dominated by a magnificent, sprawling retrospective program celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the Oberhausen Manifesto, a statement presented at the festival in 1962 that is credited with having reinvigorated German cinema, there was no such overarching component this year. As usual, the festival was divided into multiple sections, with the International Competition (encompassing ten separate programs) perhaps the most prominent. Having found the International Competition in the past to be a mixed bag (albeit sometimes featuring excellent individual films), I’ve generally focused my attention elsewhere, on the thematic series, the tributes to particular filmmakers, and above all on the typically stellar retrospective sections. And indeed, the highlight of the 2013 edition—a brief, two-program tribute to the Croatian filmmakers Petar Krelja, Krsto Papic, and Zoran Tadic—was highly reminiscent of the revelatory program organized as part of the 2009 festival surveying the work of the “Sarajevo Documentary School.” That program brought to light the extraordinarily rich body of short documentaries produced in Bosnia in the 1960s and ’70s, a collection of shorts that were lyrical, masterfully crafted, socially engaged, and often politically pointed, and whose consistently high quality suggested that they were merely the tip of the iceberg. The Krelja/Papic/Tadic programs (each screening combined films by all three filmmakers) confirmed this suspicion, demonstrating that similar (and similarly wonderful) films were being produced in Croatia during the same period (the shorts presented in Oberhausen cover the years 1968–75).
Krelja, Papic, and Tadic were passionate cinephiles and active film critics in the mid-1960s, who, fashioning themselves after the members of the French New Wave, gathered at the Corso Café in Zagreb to discuss film history, cinematic trends, and, above all, their shared fascination with classical Hollywood auteurs such as Ford, Hawks, and, above all, Hitchcock (earning them the nickname “the Hitchcockians”). Though they all ultimately directed feature-length fiction films, the production of short documentaries was a crucial part of the Yugoslav film industry during this period, and so all three cut their teeth making nonfiction shorts (though Papic alternated between documentary shorts and fictional features from the outset). While the proliferation of short documentaries in Yugoslavia stemmed in part from propagandistic purposes, Krelja, Papic, and Tadic had the good fortune to start their filmmaking careers during a period of liberalization in Croatia. And indeed, many of the films selected for the Oberhausen programs express social and political criticism, sometimes subtly (Witches [Coprnice, Petar Krelja, 1971], A Little Village Performance [Mala Seoska Priredba, Krsto Papic, 1972]), but just as often openly (The Hub [Cvor, Krsto Papic, 1969], Let Our Voices Be Heard Too [Nek Se Cuje I Nas Glas, Krsto Papic, 1971]).
Writing about the Sarajevo Documentary School program in 2009, I noted that “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.” A very similar tone marks several of the thirteen films presented in the Krelja/Papic/Tadic programs—many of them take a wry or satirical perspective, even when their ultimate purpose is deadly earnest. Chief among these were Witches, which highlights the persistence of traditional superstitions in rural Croatia even among the paraphernalia of modernity (its protagonists discuss black magic as they sip beers and watch TV); Let Our Voices Be Heard Too, a rousing protest against the illegalization of private, short-wave radio that paints a vibrant portrait of rural Croatia in which it appears that every man, woman, and child broadcasts their own charming radio show from their living rooms; and A Little Village Performance, a document of a small-town talent show that puts Waiting for Guffman to shame, and culminates in a beauty pageant that’s at once hilariously funny and almost unbearably sad.
Funny as these films are (and they’re often terribly funny), their comic tone almost always camouflages a dedication to social reform. The beauty pageant at the end of A Little Village Performance reveals the sexism and unbounded objectification that persists in Croatia’s supposedly “progressive” communist society, with the disturbingly young girls’ profoundly awkward and bored demeanor highlighting the offensiveness and absurdity of this retrograde ritual more effectively than any polemic. And similarly, the enormously charming portraits of Croatian villagers creating every manner of radio show (from musical performances and German-language lessons to full-on radio plays) from their living rooms and kitchens in Let Our Voices Be Heard Too renders absurd the authorities’ contention that these broadcasts are illegal and dangerous—Papic lets the government representative hang himself with his own noose by repeatedly intercutting his declaration that “All in all their actions are politically, ethically, and financially harmful” with the joyful, creative activities of the amateur broadcasters.
A sense of melancholy pervades these films, and is even more explicit in the shorts comprising the first program. A couple of these share the remarkable mix of gentle comedy and biting social criticism of the films already mentioned—in particular Bids Under the Number [Ponude pod broj, Petar Krelja, 1969) and The Hub [Cvor, Krsto Papic, 1969]. The former focuses on the classified ads section of a newspaper, providing a glimpse into the lives of several different city dwellers each of whom are searching for something or other (an apartment, a job, a mate)—charming but ultimately rather sad, it amounts to a kind of collage of seeking.The Hub is darker still, a portrait of the desperate, poverty-stricken men and women who haunt the Zagreb train station. But while its purpose is to reveal the poverty that exists within the city, it’s not a despairing film, partly because it allows its subjects to speak (vividly) for themselves, and partly because it devotes much of its time to the station-master, a comically stuffy and clueless functionary who advises Papic that “People are tired of poor people, you should show something amusing”, and protests, “Why do you only film bad things?”
This comical dimension faded away almost entirely with the last three films in the final program, all of which deal in some fashion with Croatian workers forced by economic straits to seek work abroad. The Special Trains (Specijalni vlakovi, Krsto Papic, 1972), Country Fair (Dernek, Zoran Tadic, 1975), and Hello Munich (Halo München, Krsto Papic, 1968) all evoke the painful consequences of this migration: the separation of families, the emotional toll of economic exile, and the workers’ alienation and cultural isolation abroad. The Special Trains is the most direct exposé of this tragic phenomenon, documenting the process by which the workers are transported to their jobs in other countries and letting them express their own, predominantly despairing views on their situation. Country Fair and Hello Munich are subtler, more impressionistic films, the first a dialogue-free depiction of a man’s brief trip home from abroad, the second a portrait of a village in Dalmatia where daily life is defined largely by the absence of the men who are working in distant lands. Whatever their tone, however, every single film in these programs demonstrated a seemingly effortless mastery of the short documentary form, a passionate devotion to documenting the breadth and depth of Croatian society (both urban and rural), and a deep concern with the daily lives of the country’s citizens. The program leaves little doubt that the cinema of the ex-Yugoslavian countries is a subject crying out for further exploration.
Aside from Krelja/Papic/Tadic, the profiled filmmakers included Ho Tzu Nyen, Laure Provost, Helga Fanderl, and Luther Price. The program devoted to Price in particular qualified as a momentous event, in part simply because he was present at the festival, the first time he had traveled outside the United States in more than twenty-five years. The festival presented three programs surveying Price’s work from 1988–2012, selected and presented by critic and curator Ed Halter and the filmmaker himself. Price’s films are dense, challenging, and often confrontational, partly due to their content—Price generally works with found footage, and the program I attended (#2) included pieces constructed from hard-core pornography (Silk  and Sodom ) as well as from footage graphically documenting plastic surgeries (Fancy ). But it’s the manner in which Price transforms his found material that is most striking, and perhaps ultimately the most challenging. While many experimental filmmakers explore the materiality of the film print—most often scratching or painting directly onto the film, but also sometimes affixing other materials to the celluloid (most famously, Stan Brakhage created his film Mothlight by sandwiching a variety of organic materials between two layers of scotch tape and then photographing and projecting the result)—Price’s interventions are singularly aggressive, abrasive, even violent.
The hand-painted films in the program I saw were all created using previously-exposed film, with flashes of the underlying images occasionally penetrating the thick overpainting but for the most part heavily obscured or, more to the point, negated. And several of the other films entailed modifications of the original footage that suggested a sense of violation and destruction—rough, jagged cuts and splices; relentlessly assaultive soundtracks created by sprockets running through the optical sound reader; optical reprinting and physical layering that gives the impression that the film is slipping out of the projector, revealing the frame lines, sprockets, and soundtrack elements. Price has famously incorporated the process of decay and destruction into his work by burying the prints of certain films (such as Program #2’s After the Garden: Dusty Ricket ) in his backyard—the disintegration of the emulsion creates visual effects that are not radically different than those found in certain films that use hand-processing or outdated film stocks, but the sense of organic decay is uniquely evocative and powerful, and very much in keeping with Price’s sensibility. Difficult and disturbing as many of Luther Price’s films may be, they’re the work of a fearless, unapologetically personal filmmaker who has been pursuing his defiantly transgressive vision for almost thirty years. And it’s a testament to Oberhausen that it continues to embrace work that is by no means easily digestible.
Another highlight of this year’s festival concerned more than simply a particular program, but rather the advent of a whole new section designed to showcase the work of the world’s film archives. This very welcome development could hardly be more timely, given the increasing importance of the traditional archive in the midst of the technological transformations that have so quickly transformed the art form—as digital has rapidly eclipsed 35mm and 16mm film prints, film archives have become even more important guardians of the medium’s past. The archives featured in this inaugural edition of the section included the Cinémathèque Française (appropriately, given Henri Langlois’s towering importance within the field), the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, and the Slovenska Kinoteka in Ljubljana, and wisely, these programs were conceived of as more than straightforward screenings—each program was introduced by a representative of the featured archive (Emilie Cauquy, Kathy Geritz, and Jurij Meden, respectively), who discussed the process, the mechanics, and the philosophy of film archiving and preservation. Since two of the three programs were scheduled for the final day of the festival, following my departure, I was only able to attend the Cinémathèque Française screening, but it was a terrific inaugural event. Emilie Cauquy presented the program, screening recently preserved prints (along with digital transfers of a couple works that are still in the process of being preserved) of animated films by Albert Pierru, who is not as well known today as experimental animators such as Norman McLaren and Mary Ellen Bute, even though, on the evidence of the films included in this program, his films are every bit as dynamic, rhythmically infectious, and visually inventive. Cauquy elaborated on the details of this ongoing preservation project, and eloquently discussed Henri Langlois’s and the Cinémathèque Française’s conviction that preservation and public exhibition are crucially dependent on each other.
If the Luther Price and Croatian programs reflected a couple of Oberhausen’s traditional strengths—its dedication to presenting truly iconoclastic, radical cinema, and its longstanding commitment to highlighting films from regions whose cinematic output is generally neglected in the West (Oberhausen has been an important platform for Yugoslav filmmakers for decades now)—the Archives section demonstrated the festival’s willingness to expand its format and embrace new ways of celebrating the short film. Oberhausen already provides an annual showcase to the world’s diverse avant-garde film distributors through its Market Screenings section, something of a festival-within-the-festival, which offers organizations such as Amsterdam’s Eye Film Institute, Chicago’s Video Data Bank, London’s Lux, Vienna’s sixpackfilm, Toronto’s Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, New York’s Electronic Arts Intermix, Berlin’s Arsenal, and many others, a chance to curate a program highlighting new additions to their collections. The new Archives section feels like a natural, and yet inspired, extension of these Market Screenings, and further demonstrates Oberhausen’s interest in collaborating with and calling attention to indispensible film cultural institutions throughout the world. It constitutes one more reason why Oberhausen itself is indispensable.
Jared Rapfogel is a member of the Cineaste editorial board and film programmer at Anthology Film Archives in New York City.
Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine
For more information on the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, visit http://www.kurzfilmtage.de