The International Short Film Festival Oberhausen (Web Exclusive)
by Jared Rapfogel
The International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, which takes place every spring in the Ruhrgebiet, Germany’s once-mighty industrial region, can be seen as many festivals in one. Of course, this can be said of most film festivals, which more often than not encompass multiple discrete sections. But at Oberhausen the various sections sometimes seem to exist as especially distinct ecosystems. In my experience, the audiences attending the International Competition section, for instance, seem relatively different than those who focus on the Theme section (which is organized by a different guest curator each year). And then there are the Distributors’ Screenings, in which a wide variety of distributors from around the world ply their wares, presenting a representative selection (usually highlighting new work or new acquisitions) of films from their catalogues.
While the value of the International Competition section is self-evident—this is, after all, where filmmakers are able to premiere their work, garnering attention and meeting film programmers as well other filmmakers—its inclusion of films that are relatively mainstream or conventionally narrative-oriented (as well as its inconsistency) has generally steered my attention to other parts of the festival’s wide-ranging programming. Especially in the realm of the short film—which too many narrative or documentary filmmakers treat as a stepping stone to feature filmmaking, rather than a form to be explored and developed in its own right—my own preference is for the experimentation, categorical freedom, and distinct tradition of avant-garde cinema, to which several other sections of the festival are more fully devoted.
I found myself spending most of my time and attention (and hence, most of this article) on the Theme section, which turned out to be among the strongest in recent years, something of a rebound after several deeply problematic programs in 2014 and 2015. (Though in fact the turnaround almost certainly began last year, with Federico Windhausen’s “El Pueblo—Searching for Contemporary Latin America”; I wasn’t present in Oberhausen for the 2016 festival, though Anthology Film Archives, where I work, did host a condensed traveling version of that program.) Unencumbered as it is from the need to focus on contemporary films or on the work of a particular artist, the Theme section is among the most promising at Oberhausen, but also perhaps the most unpredictable. Each year the festival chooses a different guest curator for this section, an admirable model in theory but one that ensures that each year’s Theme lives or dies on the inspiration of the programmer. Too often the result has been programs organized by curators whose approaches are overly academic, whose infatuation with their own concepts leads them to include unworthy works simply because they “fit” the theme, or to neglect the question of how individual works play off each other.
In my time attending Oberhausen, the Theme section has been the source of both profoundly revelatory programs (2012’s “Provoking Reality: Mavericks, MouveMents, Manifestos,” inspired by the fiftieth anniversary of the Oberhausen Manifesto) and painfully unsatisfactory ones (such as 2013’s “Flatness: Cinema After the Internet” and 2015’s “The Third Image—3D Cinema as Experiment”). Still, the potential rewards inherent in allowing for a different curatorial vision each year outweigh the risks. And this year’s guest curator, Tilman Baumgärtel, contributed a film program that, for the most part, delivered on its promise, bringing his credentials as a professor of media theory at the University of Applied Sciences in Mainz to bear on a program entitled “Social Media Before the Internet.”
Encompassing five separate chapters, the program as a whole focused on the efforts undertaken by media-makers and artists during the 1960s–1980s to use small-gauge film and eventually video technologies to circumvent the established structures of production and distribution, and to develop a democratic, participatory media. In some ways “Social Media Before the Internet” was almost the polar opposite of some of the more disappointing sections of recent years: the concept was lacking in certain ways, above all in its geographic and historical homogeneity, but the individual works Baumgärtel selected were almost uniformly worthwhile, and often revelatory.
That Baumgärtel acknowledged the program’s geographic limitations in his essay in the festival’s catalogue—confessing that “I have restricted myself mostly to Germany and the USA, the countries whose media landscapes I know best,” and conceding that, “There are certainly also discoveries to be made in the other European countries, in Latin America and in Canada…”—didn’t succeed in dispelling the feeling that the selection’s omissions were conspicuous. To say that he restricted himself “mostly” to German and American films was actually something of an understatement—of the twenty-four film or video works presented within the Theme, all but one were from those two countries, and the sole exception was from a land that can’t really be said to represent an appreciably different culture (exotic Switzerland). Without minimizing the challenge of doing justice to such a wide-ranging topic within five short programs, it’s hard to understand why he couldn’t have at least gestured toward the many relevant works from the rest of the world. Though the absence of geographical diversity was the primary caveat I had towards the Theme program, it’s also worth pointing out how interesting it might have been to have expanded the frame temporally, too, finding proto-participatory filmic efforts prior to the 1960s (perhaps this is a stretch but it seems to me that films by Dziga Vertov, Jean Epstein, and Jean Rouch, for instance, could arguably be considered from within this framework).
Even aside from the geographical and cultural dimension, the program never quite dispelled the feeling that the reference to online “social media” signified an attempt at a fashionable sense of contemporaneity rather than a coherent theory. With the exception of the playfully and self-consciously narcissistic Der goldene Schuss—Aus der Serie “Hauptsache W. Parkinson” (Winfried Parkinson, 1969) and perhaps one or two other works, the majority of the pieces here suggested that Baumgärtel’s idea of proto-social-media essentially amounted to politically charged films created outside mainstream commercial structures of production and distribution, and intended to be transmitted to audiences directly, via underground screening situations or other kinds of networks. In other words, “social media before the Internet” seemed conceived so broadly that it could encompass almost any truly independent cinema or communication—avant-garde/experimental film, politically underground documentary or agitprop, samizdat publications, and so on. Though the works included in the section certainly established the existence, prior to the twenty-first century, of a participatory “social” media, to showcase them under the rubric of “social media before the Internet” felt unnecessarily reductive, as if decades of radical, utopian-minded media were simply a prologue to our own era.
Nevertheless, putting the conceptual framework and branding of Baumgärtel’s program aside in favor of a reckoning with each screening on its own terms proved much more rewarding. Over the course of five screenings, Baumgärtel presented two little-known works by Harun Farocki, a variety of pieces by pioneering video artists Douglas Davis, Nam June Paik, Jaime Davidovich, David Cort and Mary Curtis Ratcliff, and George Stoney, several pieces focusing on or embodying media hacking, and, best of all from an outsider’s perspective, astonishing, collectively made works that emerged from Germany in the 1970s and 1980s: a vital work of agitprop solidarity, Mietersolidarität; a feminist docudrama, Für Frauen—1. Kapitel; a man-on-the-street discussion film, Documenta der Leute: Bibel-Gespräch; two anarchic works by the Medienwerkstatt Freiburg; and a profoundly moving glimpse at divided Berlin, Fernsehgrusse von West nach Ost.
Despite the passionate conviction and political urgency underlying all of these films and videos, the great majority of them proved to be anything but dryly earnest—in fact, one of the unifying factors among them was their shared sense of humor. Douglas Davis, Nam June Paik, and Jaime Davidovich are all well known for their sometimes prankish sensibilities, while even Harun Farocki—not normally what you’d call a laugh riot—is represented here by two works that are uncharacteristically nimble and playfully inventive. Perhaps the most emblematic of this marriage of humor and conviction is Lanesville TV News Buggy, by the video collective Videofreex. Carting a baby carriage filled with video and sound equipment around the small Vermont village where the collective has set up their headquarters, the Videofreex interview their neighbors and report—in the manner of television newscasters—on the “news” of the town: the birth of a new child, a farmer’s acquisition of an electric cart, and so on. Resembling a sleepy small-town parody of the nightly news, it is in fact—but without belaboring the point—a declaration that the daily lives of small-town residents and farmers are at least as newsworthy as the shenanigans of heads of state, as well as an attempt to give the residents of the town the opportunity to see themselves on television and hence to think of media as something that belongs to them.
This sentiment runs through many of the works included in the section, not least Documenta der Leute: Bibel-Gespräch (The People’s documenta: Bible Discussion) (telewissen, 1972), in which the makers invite and document lively, impassioned debates about the value of religion among passersby on the street, and Mietersolidarität (Tenant Solidarity) (Max Willutzki, 1970), an agitprop piece that was made as part of the struggle against the eviction of working-class families from the newly built Märkisches Viertel housing estate. The idea that media is something the citizenry can commandeer for their own ends, rather than simply being subjected to, receives its most succinct articulation in Reverse Big Brother (Paul Garrin, 1990), a punk-inflected declaration of the subversive power of widely-available consumer video cameras. Opening with footage documenting police violence during the 1988 Tompkins Square Park protests in New York City, it culminates with Garrin directly addressing the viewer: “Big Brother used to be the State watching the people. Now it’s also the people watching the State…Home video cameras and VCRs break the State’s control over information, and place it in the hands of people. The news media decides the headlines. People with camcorders show us what the headlines don’t. Use your camera intelligently.”
Even more anarchic—in terms of its sense of humor but also quite literally—was the astonishing Ein neuer Oberbürgermeister für Freiburg (A New Mayor for Freiburg), by the radical media group, Medienwerkstatt Freiburg. If this had been the only worthwhile work in the festival, I would have considered the 2017 edition of Oberhausen a success: a document of an act of civil disobedience that takes the form of a Molotov cocktail-like performance piece, A New Mayor for Freiburg finds (what I assume are) members of the group disrupting a public hearing in which numerous mayoral-candidate hopefuls are intended to make their case to their potential constituents. According to the evidence of the video, members of the group infiltrated not only the audience (as part of which they cause a massive ruckus, yelling and incessantly setting off noise-makers) but also the mayoral slate: the staid, predictably anger-prone career politicians find themselves sharing the stage with other “candidates” who proceed to make an extreme (and extremely hilarious) mockery of the proceedings: one takes the stage in full athletic regalia, campaigning on a platform of “sports, games, excitement”; another distracts his fellow candidates by releasing wind-up toys to roam across the table they all share; and a third unleashes a manic, uproarious speech that consists entirely of Dada-esque nonsense syllables. It’s a collective performance that may justifiably be seen as an act of juvenile irresponsibility, but the sheer audacity and fearless clownishness is thrilling, and left me deeply curious about the history and work of the Medienwerkstatt Freiburg (the group was represented, in Program 4, by one other piece—1984’s Radio Freies Dreyeckland—but I missed that program, and though I was subsequently able to find ways to see most of the works included there, the Freiburg piece was sadly an exception).
Another revelation of the Theme section, and another work designed to give voice to a group normally excluded from media participation, was Für Frauen—1. Kapitel (For Women—Chapter 1) (Cristina Perincioli, 1971). Though For Women was made as her graduation film (at the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin), Perincioli recruited a group of housewives and shop assistants not only to appear in the film but also to collaborate on its making. Set in a supermarket, For Women depicts the female employees’ growing consciousness of their exploitation at the hands of their male supervisors and co-workers, and their realization of how unequal their pay is. Ultimately, after negotiating the philosophical and class differences between them, the women demonstrate their power by going on strike, leaving the men with no choice but to take on tasks they’re incompetent to perform. For Women is unapologetically and charmingly amateurish in its acting and dramatization, but if anything this lack of polish increases its power and sense of liberation—the fact that the performers are clearly not professional actresses makes it clear at every moment that they are essentially playing themselves, and they seem genuinely to be having fun enacting this fictionalized rebellion. Indeed, there’s a sense that the film is not just a clarion call to the assertion of female economic and political power but also a kind of therapeutic ritual that for its participants is liberating in and of itself.
In the equally moving Fernsehgrüsse von West nach Ost (Television Greetings from West to East) (Michaela Buescher & Gerd Conradt, 1986), the medium of video becomes a means of allowing West and East Germans—brutally separated by the madness of Cold War politics and the Berlin Wall—to communicate with each other. Though the tape features appearances from singer/songwriter Nina Hagen and artist and filmmaker Cornelia Schleime, most of the participants are anonymous residents of East and West. Their “video letters” are full of humor and playfulness—like so many of the works included in the Theme section—but are of course also saturated with an often (but not always) unspoken melancholy, longing, and anger at the tragic phenomenon of lives torn apart by the absurdity of geopolitics. Throughout the era of divided Berlin, television and radio broadcasts were famously a form of communication that the authorities were largely incapable of blocking, but for the most part such broadcasts were a way for East and West Germans to catch a glimpse of life on the other side. Here the gesture utilized by so many of the artists, activists, and groups included in the Theme section—to use media not as a passive method of delivering information but as a form of direct address—attains its most powerful reason for being: allowing those who are physically divided to connect through media.
Jaime Davidovich attempted to take this hands-on approach even further; his QUBE Project (1980) was designed to experiment with giving viewers the chance not only to see their lives depicted on TV but to gain control over the mechanisms of recording and editing themselves. From a studio in Columbus, Ohio, Davidovich and “co-host” Carol Stevenson invite individual viewers to call in and, through their spoken instructions, to direct the actions of the cameramen according to four variables: zooming in or out, panning left or right, tilting up or down, and going in or out of focus. Meanwhile, the larger home audience participates in the editing by voting—via their “QUBE consoles”—for one or the other of the two cameras to go live. Though of course in this case the audience’s autonomy is generated by the grace of the show’s producers and hosts, the program effectively follows Lanesville TV News Buggy and so many of the other works included in “Social Media Before the Internet” in demystifying the processes and audiovisual mechanics of media production.
As I said, I’ve chosen to focus primarily on the Theme section. But I don’t want to suggest that there weren’t riches to be found elsewhere in the festival. For one thing, since its inception in 2013, the Archives section—which each year provides several different international archives with the opportunity to showcase their recent preservation projects or gems from their collections—has proven to be an unambiguous highlight of Oberhausen. And so it was truly painful to have to depart the festival before these screenings took place, back-loaded as they are on the final two days. This year the Archive section hosted programs curated by the archivists from the Cinemateca Portuguesa, the Swedish Film Institute, the Italian Amateur Film Archives, and Gosfilmofond, the Russian state film archive, all of whom no doubt brought rare and wonderful gems from their vaults.
This was also a particularly generous year from the perspective of the Profiles, which shine a spotlight on individual artists who are invited to show works both old and new. In 2017 the spotlight fell on seven different filmmakers (significantly more than usual): Sandro Aguilar, Khavn, Bjørn Melhus, Larissa Sansour, Barbara Sternberg, Jaan Toomik, and Nina Yuen. I attended programs by Khavn, Melhus, Sansour, and Sternberg, and though I found some to be much more rewarding than others, their work deserves more space for discussion than I’ve left myself here.
There were riches to be found in the Distributors programs as well. I managed to see two, from Video Data Bank (VDB) in Chicago and Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI) in New York. A standout in VDB’s program was Dana Levy’s This Was Home (2016), a haunting meditation on displacement, memory, and the passage of time. Making remarkable use of a split-screen technique, Levy simultaneously documents three journeys into the past: her grandfather’s trip to his childhood home in Sosnowiec, Poland, from which he was sent by the Nazis to Auschwitz; her father’s return to Cairo, Egypt, where he spent his earliest years before the family’s emigration to Israel; and her own visit to Atlanta, where she spent part of her childhood before her parents returned to Israel. Seeing these three different experiences all at once, with the sound shuttling in turn from one to another, amounts to an immensely powerful reckoning with the tragic rootlessness of the twentieth century Jewish experience, as well as a poetic layering of temporal and geographic dimensions, which amplifies and complicates the ways in which the passing of time and the importance of place can so often become intertwined.
The Distributors programs tend to focus on contemporary work, but that guideline can be stretched to accommodate older work that has only recently been brought into a particular organization’s collection. The EAI screening took advantage of this freedom to present a selection of films from each of the past four decades, and the result was an especially eclectic and exhilarating program that brought together work by Ellen Cantor, Robert Beck, Wu Tsang, Barbara Hammer, and Bruce and Norman Yonemoto. Though shot on 16mm, Hammer’s No No Nooky T.V. (1987) consists primarily of (then early) computer graphics, a medium it deconstructs and subverts both by revealing the gendered conventions of the technology (the computer-generated narration calls attention to the fact that—despite the film’s female authorship—a male voice is the only option available) and more generally by eroticizing a medium that’s normally associated with the inhuman and mechanical: the on-screen texts (and occasional audio) are explicitly sexual, while the film ultimately literalizes its approach by wrapping the computer monitor in lingerie. In its own way, No No Nooky T.V. repurposes media to its own ends every bit as much as the films in the “Social Media Before the Internet” section.
Of course repurposing media to one’s own ends is what all the finest filmmakers can be said to be doing, and there was no shortage of such iconoclastic and innovative work at the sixty-third edition of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. As you’d expect with a festival that brings together more than four hundred films, in more than ten separate sections, there’s a wealth of opportunities to see fascinating work as well as a great deal of inconsistency at every edition. But thanks to the highly rewarding Theme section, an especially generous assortment of Profiles, and the always-dependable Archives and Distributors programs, 2017 proved to be an especially memorable year.
For information on the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, click here.
Jared Rapfogel, a Cineaste Associate, is film programmer at Anthology Film Archives in New York City.
Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 4