A Very Short Party

in 62nd International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

by Shy K. Segev

With more than six decades under its belt, the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen continues to present short form works which subvert and astonish. Nestled in the western corner of Germany, the quiet town of Oberhausen and its neighboring post-industrial cities in the Ruhr valley are referred to as the Detroit of Germany. The founding spirit of the festival, “to educate the populace and promote the welfare of our youth”, is still profoundly felt and demonstrated by its dedication to quality children’s programming, which began in 1978.

The festival is a proponent of challenging work that pushes the boundaries of contemporary cinema; it has historically been known for its 1962 Oberhausen Manifesto which, to this day, has inscribed a tradition of evolution and renewal in moving image forms.

The festival’s program is inspiringly inclusive, featuring animation, documentary, narrative, experimental and avant-garde films – and, of course, works which resist categorization, taking us back to the fundamental question: What is film?

The are several competitions, including awards from the International Festival Jury, FIPRESCI Jury, Ecumenical Jury, Jury of the North Rhine-Westphalia Government of Family, Children, Youth, Culture and Sport, and the MuVi (music video) Jury. The festival also showcases moving-image distributors and archives from around the world.

Each year, the world’s longest-standing international short film competition receives around 5000 entries from about 90 countries: both short films and videos (which have been admitted to the competition on an equal footing with film since 1993). Since 2009, all competition entries must be German premieres.

Among the entries submitted during the history of this competition, one finds names such as Eija-Lisa Ahtila, Doug Aitken, Robert Frank, Michel Gondry, Werner Herzog, DanièleHuillet, Takashi Ito, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Aki Kaurismäki, Spike Lee, Jan Lenica, George Lucas, Chris Marker,  Jonas Mekas, Idrissa Ouedraogo, François Ozon, Roman Polanski, Alain Resnais, Pipilotti Rist, Jacques Rivette, Zbigniew Rybczynski, Martin Scorsese, Ousmane Sembène, Jean-Marie Straub, Jan Švankmajer, István Szabó, Gus Van Sant, and Agnès Varda.

Just as important as the competitions is the extensive Theme program. Today, the short film branches into a host of cross-genre forms which are not shown in cinemas, be they avant-garde, advertising or scientific films or a wealth of artists’ experiments. Oberhausen presents this differentiated form of the short film in thematic contexts, thus creating a forum for social discussions which, although originating from the topic of short film, actually go far beyond film-related issues and lead to an all-encompassing dialogue on the ways and workings of film production in the arts, new technologies and science.

For example, this year’s theme was El Pueblo: Searching for Contemporary Latin America, curated by Federico Windhausen, a film scholar and curator based in Buenos Aires. In Latin America, “el pueblo” is an ambiguous term: it can refer to an entire region, the people of a nation, the common people, or a village. During the 1960s and 70s, the New Latin American Cinema endorsed “el pueblo” as an idea to mobilize revolutionary socio-political transformations. But today, this widespread ideological rallying cry, “Somos el pueblo” (We are the people), no longer carries the same impact or promise.

However, during the past ten years, Latin America has seen a wave of original and innovative artist films which have replaced the polemical and agitated declaration of collective identity with a series of questions: What is “el pueblo”? Can the grander constructs which it implies (Latin America, national identity) be illuminated or challenged by looking carefully at the behavioral, material, and environmental particulars of politically-charged micro-spaces? If “the people” can be located and represented with any precision, it is in the singular places and restricted sites where small-scale developments and “minor” stories occur. Such settings, which include the vast streets of Brasilia, the deep interior of the rainforest, Mexico‘s high-tech factories, a mining town in the Andes, or the rural plantations of southern Paraguay, are more than backdrops – the details we are shown carry a significance that has been shaped by each locale‘s histories.

While these films can produce the impression of proximity, they also complicate their representations with the strategic use of ambiguity and elliptical structures. Because we see effects but not their causes, our knowledge remains restricted. Since key events or factors are left outside the frame, we are left to consider a series of questions about which historical, political, and cultural frameworks might be most relevant to what we have seen – in films that deliberately risk leaving their meanings open in order to make unique and compelling demands on their viewers.

Oberhausen’s tradition as a festival of dialectics, championing the thorough intellectual investigation of process, aesthetics, and politics in its post-screening discussions and Podium program, was taken to a new level last year with the initiation of the Oberhausen Seminar. Led by scholar and curator Federico Windhausen and co-presented by LUX and the Flaherty Film Seminar, the group of 31 participants, including graduate students, artists, and curators, met for daily sessions. They participated in roundtable discussions and engaged with visiting speakers, including David Dinnell, program director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, filmmakers such as Mounira al Solh and Kevin Jerome Everson, and Hilke Doering, head of Oberhausen’s International Competition. The Seminar is a forum for exchange, inquiry and debate, which culminates in the public Podium event, presenting key questions and reflections on the theme and Profile programs arising over the week.

Now in its 62nd year, the festival continues to reinvent its form by taking on this substantial new addition. With its intimate and in-depth approach to presenting short films, Oberhausen holds a unique place in the festival landscape.

Edited by Lesley Chow