Form Versus Emotion at Oberhausen By Cameron Bailey
For 52 years Oberhausen has hosted its annual throng of intense artmongers. Every audience here is guaranteed to include at least a dozen Ph.Ds, and debates at the new Podium series of panel discussions began in the intellectual stratosphere and immediately went north.
In this kind of environment it’s tempting to imagine there are no new ideas. Oberhausen has seen verité, radical politics, the famous manifesto signed by Alexander Kluge and his colleagues, and the inevitable lurch into postmodernism. But an interesting schizm emerged in this year’s International Competition films. Even as thousands of flip, comic shorts have begun to colonize mobile phones and iPods around the world, Oberhausen’s selection appears to be splitting in two contrary directions, like a river cleaving around a rock. On one side: the sophisticated conceptual art videos and formalist films. On the other: emotion. Whether the form was a confessional video, a drama or a documentary, many of the most successful films this year pursued rich, open emotional expression. It came as a surprise in a place with so many high foreheads.
The prizes reflected exactly this split. You, Waguih (Toi, Waguih) by French director Namir Abdel Messeeh won the FIPRESCI prize. A 28′ documentary in which the director confronts his father about his hidden history as a political prisoner in Egypt, it received by far the warmest audience response among the International Competition films. Shot primarily in black and white and composed of intimate conversations, it has the feel of an old Rohmer film, but with current political urgency. You, Waguih also won one of two “Principal” prizes from the Competition jury.
But that jury gave its Grand Prize to a film from the other stream of work here. Belgian director Vincent Meessen claimed not just Oberhausen’s top prize but also the unofficial award for hardest-to-pronounce title. N12°13.062‘/W001°32.619‘ Extended is an austere, unsettling portrait of a quarry in Burkina Faso, where two men labour in the sun, hewing bricks out of rock. The off-kilter compositions and electro-acoustic soundscape seem designed to produce a sensation of disorientation, even as its title locates the precise global positioning system coordinates of its setting. At eight minutes and 30 seconds it is conceptually perfect, but as cool in tone as its setting is hot.
Messeeh’s film stands in exact contrast to Meesen’s — the near anagram of their names is felicitous, and curiously, the “N-H” that separates the two is also the name of Oberhausen’s main festival hotel. Where the Belgian in Burkina Faso foregrounds how much the design of a film can transform its documentary subject, Messeeh, who appears in his own documentary about a filmmaker trying to make a documentary about his fater, actually submerges its postmodern trope in favour of the emotional conflict and resolution between father and son. The exercise in point-of-view nearly disappears as the viewer is drawn into the conflict between the son who seeks the truth of his father’s painful past and the father who prefers to leave the torture he suffered in Egypt under a veil of discretion. The film’s sole colour sequence, in which the son records his father’s modest retirement ceremony at work, highlights how the older man’s public diffidence reflects but never exactly mirrors the private face he shows his son. Both the film’s cinematic shooting style and its structure, which moves from private to public and back to private spaces, generate an intimacy which encourages the viewer first to feel empathy, then to reflect on the form that produced it.
So consider, on the one hand, Peter Tscherkassky’s dazzling Instructions for a Light And Sound Machine, which in 17 minutes dices Sergio Leone clips into a million pieces. The result is a heart-attack montage of film against film. On the other, Hungarian filmmaker Eva Magyarosi’s strange and lovely Hanne , a six-minute elegy in which the narrator recalls her former lover, conjuring up trenchant, powerfully female images worthy of Emily Dickinson. Both films are technically accomplished, both engage the audience. But their terms of engagement couldn’t be more different. That split between appeals to the heart and head, between left brain and right, is simple, but it defined much of what unspooled this year in Oberhausen. Two streams diverged in the Ruhr valley; both can be seen as responses to the new, Internet-driven tide of commercial short films. Instead of quick jolts of entertainment or sensation, these films seek to slake some deeper thirst.