Art in the Slow Lane Oberhausen's More Contemplative Selections By Oliver Baumgarten

in 53rd Oberhausen International Short Film Festival

by Oliver Baumgarten

If there was one theme in the contributions to the International Competition at Oberhausen’s 53rd International Short Film Festival, it was the discovery of slowness. Sixty-four films from 37 countries formed the competition, and a vast majority of these films were designed in a markedly slow way. Three examples.

The existence of a slow rhythm in experimental works does not really surprise, but this year offered some outstanding examples: Japanese master Yamada Isao, for instance contributed his new film to the programme. Fragility is an atmospheric 25-minute-meditation, composed of beautiful images, elegiac piano music and explicit symbolism. Shot on Super-8, Isao’s film constitutes a marvellous and gentle reflection on fragility and transience by assembling slow-motion shots of fireworks and an androgynous youth. The low tempo of Isao’s composition thereby strengthens the strong impressions and connotations we form as we watch. Fragility was projected on Super-8 in Oberhausen, and the clattering of the projector perfectly supported this meditative atmosphere.

While Fragility gives the impression of being slow by its repetitive structure, a much-lauded documentary felt slow thanks to its extremely unrushed narration. The Russian film On the Third Planet from the Sun by Pavel Medvedev confronts the viewer with images of northern Russia, 45 years after atomic testing was conducted in the region. Using a very simple — sometimes too simple — structure of parallel montages, Medvedev contrasts images of scrap-metal collectors at their lonely, cumbersome work with some old women foraging through the woods while being surrounded by billions of annoying midges. Arranged without dialogue, music or text, Medvedev’s film must convince only by its images. He observes his subjects carefully and composes every frame as simply as possible. On the Third Planet from the Sun feels “slow” because Medvedev forms every shot as a single declarative sentence.

The Vietnamese director Hà Phong Nguyen risked a little bit more expressiveness. His 13-minute film The Terrace (San thu’o’ng) tells a short tale straightforwardly, without much complication, and the result — at least when compared to the rest of the films at Oberhausen — is an almost conventional work. An old man sits on a terrace, watching his son fumbling with an antenna, when suddenly a parrot lands on the roof. The old man can’t identify the bird and asks his son what it might be. He asks six times until his son swears and scolds him, because the son has forgotten how much he had annoyed his father in his youth.

It sounds moral, and it is. But from a visual and a technical point of view The Terrace has brilliant moments to offer. Hà Phong Nguyen tells this small episode in a concentrated manner, using slow long-distance shots with a dolly-driven camera. As a result, the experience of the location’s limited space is very intensive, and the slowness of movement subjectively conveys a sense of the father’s age.

Oberhausen’s motto in 2001 was “Films for Impatient People.” But 2007 proved that slowness can work really well for short films. And the combination of slowness and film festivals in general works even better; there’s enough stress outside the cinemas, so one has to be thankful for some rest and joy in the auditorium.