Nature Calling By Nick Bradshaw

in 51th Oberhausen International Short Film Festival

by Nick Bradshaw

‘Film festival selection is about compassion’, Oberhausen’s director Lars Henrik Gass opined when my Fipresci colleagues and I quizzed him about his programmers’ procedures and protocols. (His team were steeped in different countries’ short-filmmaking scenes, he explained, and understood the emerging trends, struggles and achievements in their specialist areas.)

By the same token, film festival viewing may be about serendipity – the tracing of strange coincidences and connections that the programmers’ compassion throws up. I don’t know if I can make anything of the observation that both John Smith’s Throwing Stones – the third of his single-take hotel-room monologues, here musing on lock-ins and lock-outs from occupied Palestine to Smith’s own international wanders – and the delightfully languid nocturnal heart-to-heart A Tree in Tanjung Malim , by Malaysia’s Tan Chui Mui, both featured characters gazing wistfully in from the outside on lit windows that turned out to be their own. Or that two of the more unvarnished films in completely different programmes – Ivan Golovnev’s Little Katarina (Malenkaya Katerina) and Guy Ben-Ner’s Wild Child – both toyed with the idea of children developing in a state of nature (though where Golovnev’s film tracked the idea of growth and ‘progress’ through the passing months in the young life of a Siberian nomad girl, Ben-Nur and his young son’s delightfully home-made restaging of the Kaspar Hauser legend seemed more a portrait of the filmmaker himself reliving his lost youth and innocence.

And while the festival screened three separate programmes of music videos, the best of all was tucked away in the International Competition. Benny Nemerofsky’s Audition Tape was the artist’s improbable but highly persuasive Pop Idol-style video pitch to join the Russian teen-lesbian manufactured pop duo Tatu. Training the camera on himself, Nemerofsky explained that while his body might not have been to order, he had the grooves and the feeling (an alienated gay adolescent history, and a Ukrainian-emigrant grannie.). From this to Wild Child to Throwing Stones , the level of DIY home-video invention interspersed through the programme was highly encouraging.

And speaking of nature, someone had a cats and dogs fetish, and I don’t think it was just me. Spike Jonze’s Björk video Triumph of a Heart gave the first inkling, with its equable pussy cat bedded down with a footloose Björk, driving her home from a girls’ night out in his SUV and shaking a leg before bed. Sweden’s Nathalie Djurberg’s model-animated Tiger Licking Girl’s Butt – self-explanatory in its storyline – announced itself as a ‘remake of my earlier work’, and worried at the filmmaker’s urge to self-repetition, but finally demonstrated that obsessive-compulsive behaviour brings its own rewards. From Ireland came Ken Wardrop’s Useless Dog, a crisply comic portrait of the family’s work-shy and cowardly farm-hound (it let the sheep chase it). And over in The Fallen Curtain retrospective – a survey of Soviet and post-Soviet cinema, politics and identity – there were more beasts galore. William Wegman’s Weimeraner dog Man Ray appeared to be the most attentive English student ever, to judge from the droll Spelling Lesson. Joël Bartholoméo’s funny-shocking Le Chat Qui Dort observed a cat at repose despite its increasingly brutal mauling by a young girl trying to beat it to sleep. And Oleg Kulik’s Reservoir Dog watched a chained and naked man dog guarding a shop door until the police came to haul him away.

There were also cows, horses, herons, fish, worms and African bush game, but nothing that prepared you for the bestial ghoulishness in one programme called The Pride of Creation. The 1940s Soviet snuff-science film Experiments in the Revival of Organisms demonstrated the zoological leaps being made under Stalin: scientists could keep a dog’s severed head alive detached from the rest of its body, and indeed revive the entire animal after draining it of all its blood. The film showed off a family of such miracles of science, who’d even breed after the experiment, happily providing the scientists with more experimental fodder. And Vladimir Tyulkin’s 42-minute epic documentary Lord of the Flies (Povelitel Much) introduced Kirill Ignatjewich Spack, a wild-haired post-Soviet farm hermit who’d developed a complete self-sustaining animal ecosystem involving the farming of flies to produce maggot-feed for his animals, who one by one became the meat traps to lure in the flies. A Russian tyrant in miniature – the Stalin of his bestial gulag – he talked Tyulkin calmly through his mad methods and morals, and commended his system to Mikhail Gorbachev for national roll-out. This animal kingdom seemed to have regressed to the Hobbesian idea of the state of nature: nasty, brutish and short.