Long Distance, Short Films

in 66th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

by Iryna Marholina

All kinds of distance are currently relevant to us. Not only the length of 1.5 meters, in which the era of the pandemic is measured but the thousands of kilometers it takes to travel to an overseas film festival. This year, there was no need to bridge that distance because the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen migrated online, attracting visitors from all over the world, who were given a choice of over 350 films and a window of 48 hours in which to watch each program. After the festival, we received a survey to find out the differences between online and offline events. Well – obviously, there were fewer liquids and more films. No coffee breaks, no short talks, or walks. As a result, no distance between films. 

Today, watching films online is a familiar activity – though not in a festival context. But the unusual format of this year’s festival was oddly suited to its selection of experimental films. In general, viewers tend to long for depth involvement: to shorten the distance between themselves and the film’s world or the director’s method. Showing experimental films – necessarily weird, non-figurative, non-narrative art objects – might have been the best way to overcome the issue of distance.  

To explore the dozens of approaches to film represented by the international competition, one needed to seek out different lenses (sometimes literally, right inside the frame). In Jayne Parker’s Amaryllis – a Study (2020), there was the rediscovery of the vibrant nature of color, breathing through the celluloid surface, while Sverre Fredriksen’s False Water (L’eau faux, 2020) mixed textures and techniques and created synesthetic space. 

But the competition did not only include abstract works: there were also films made in very concrete genres. In fact, two films were screen adaptations of letters. Of course, a letter is a well-known method of coping (or not) with distance, so here we had an acknowledgment of distance within the films. The distance was not used merely as a concept or structural element or as a whimsical way to perceive content, but as a message addressed from one man to another: from Greece to Russia, from the director to a viewer.

The Many Deaths of Aristides (Las muertes de Aristides, 2019) was constructed by Lázaro Lemus on the basis of a letter from his uncle Aristides. The film is a balanced piece with an experimental mixture of techniques including text, voiceover, and the depiction of short moments in life somewhat rooted in the present. The letter was written several hours before Aristides was shot in the chest during his military service in the Cuban navy, and the story is the director’s intimate experience of recreating the last moments of Aristides’ life and thoughts. 

The countdown is registered physically – although the film is only 17 minutes long, it seems to become more and more elongated with each frame. Symbols of time are made sensually available in a number of ways – through stroboscopic glimpses of an image, monotone movements (of a sewing machine, for example), and a discrete black-and-white animation.

There are no images of Aristides in the film, which means that the approach is fairly distant in itself – the story is told in a philosophical rather than emotional manner. The director acts as a mediator, even a Charon figure who takes Aristides across the river Styx to the world of the dead in the animated section. In this film, the distance between worlds is thin but impregnable – and the only thing left to do is to read the letter, again and again, coming to an inevitable end.

Another picture structured by letters was Thelyia Petraki’s BELLA (2020). In this film, the voiceover is made up of letters written from 1986 to 1987 by a wife in Greece whose husband has gone to Moscow for a long-term business trip. As the sociopolitical situation in both countries changes crucially, the heroine finds herself changing as well. She talks about her everyday routines, makes very deep and courageous confessions, and even shares her depressing fantasies about her husband cheating on her in Moscow – and all of these are shown onscreen. The background imagery of the two countries, expressive portraits of the protagonist, and the use of reshot home footage create a spatial visual environment in which at least three layers of her subjective reality can be traced.

While The Many Deaths of Aristides revealed the metaphysics of Aristides’ last message, in BELLA there is an attempt to deepen the emotional drama of the protagonist. In the first film, Aristides writes a letter as his life is coming to an end so that from the very beginning his figure is part of a visual narrative: there is already a parallel life here since his voice is heard from the other side. The opposite is true of BELLA, which is about the full presence of its heroine in a reality that affects and is affected by letters. BELLA is more of a diary adaptation, as even within the film the addressee is absent; there are only continuous monologues tenderly re-written by the director, not only with the help of the actress but with the reconstruction of a visual style referring to the late 1980s. 

Nevertheless, both of these films represent distance as an insurmountable barrier, because the addresser and the addressee are too far apart, physically or emotionally. A document from the past cannot bring back lost time, except for a short moment – or a short film. 

Iryna Marholina
Edited by Lesley Chow