Oberhausen: The Place Where Film and Politics Meet

in 68th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

by Lamia Fathy

The International Short Film Festival Oberhausen has always been a political festival. Right from the very beginning when the organisers announed the death of old films, it wasn’t only a message to German directors, but also to all filmmakers around the world to liberate their work, and to encourage them to experiment and go further in pushing the boundaries.

After two years of virtual editions due to the pandemic, Oberhausen took place as a physical event in again, with audiences and filmmakers watching films on the big screen. Despite Corona restrictions in Germany many guests were able to come, either to show films or to watch them. At the entrance to the festival’s main cinema Kino Lichtburg there was a collage of banners from political parties almost overshadowing the festival’s banners themselves. This was because the festival coincided with the state elections in NRW (North Rhine-Westphalia). However, inside the cinema it was not so different.

It did not come as a surprise that the opening of the festival began with a small protest against cutting more than 5000 trees in the city to build a new highway, which gave students the opportunity to openly criticise the environmental policies of the state in front of Oberhausen’s mayor. Afterwards Gypsies in Duisburg (Zigeuner in Duisburg, 1980), a film about the Sinti minority by the veteran German director Rainer Komers opened the festival in the presence of two sisters from the young generation of the Sinti family who appeared in the film. The screening was followed by the two women saying a few touching words about the situation of this minority still struggling to fit into German society.

A number of political themes were also present in the international competition, from Latin America to Africa and the Middle East. One of these films was Colony Collapse Disorder (Hafra’at Hitmotetut Hamoshava, 2021) by the Israeli director Amos Holzman. It’s a tough and realistic satire about men who try to escape the compulsory military service by conning doctors with lies about having been stung by an unknown insect, which apparently is a common trick to get three days off. In his graduate short film Panta Rhei (HaKol Zorem, 2010) Holzman had started his promising realistic style with sarcasm to draw attention to the life of youth in Israel, and to address the dilemma of needing to apply to the military and wishing not to be accepted. He himself is against compulsory military service which is openly visible in his shorts. However, Holzman decided in his new film to go beyond politics. The film starts at the forest when two individuals with sharp facial features are getting close to a bee colony in order to interrupt them. Despite the political background this film is more about feelings. Whether they are two boys or girls doesn’t matter in this case. The question is how to escape the tough reality for a moment, to exercise the right to live in a conservative society. Between the bees’ noise in the soundtrack that refers to the nightmare of the military service and the two lovers who are shyly trying to flirt with each other in public lies the truth of a new generation that refuses to waste their lives with weapons and wars in order to spend it with their loved ones instead.

The closing ceremony wasn’t so much different from the opening. On one hand, some politically inspired films won various awards, such as the Lebanese short film Odorless Blue Flowers Awake Prematurely (2021) by Panos Aprahamian which criticises the future of Lebanon in the midst of a severe economic crisis. Another short documentary that received two special mentions from two different juries is The Stopover (L’escale, 2022) by Paul Shemisi from Belgium and Nizar Saleh from Congo who were stopped at the airport in Angola on their way to Frankfurt because the police suspected that they were traveling illegally.

On the other hand, another spontaneous protest began as Spanish director and activist Esther Vital got a special mention for her short animation film Searching Heleny (Cadê Heleny, 2022) about a Brazilian professor who was arrested and tortured and then disappeared in the 1970s under the dictatorship in Brazil. After receiving the award, she spoke out against the current Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, which was welcomed and echoed by Latin American members in the audience.

A yearning towards freedom and peace was the common theme of this festival edition: freedom to create short films the way the festival has advocated for 68 years, or freedom of thought and expression, especially in countries where a basic right like this cannot be taken for granted. Such a yearning has succeeded in surpassing national and international conflicts, political ideology, religious background, sexual orientation and more. It has shown, both on screen and off, the spirit that the founders of this festival were dreaming of. One can only look forward to next year’s edition of the festival with excitement and a yearning towards more.

Lamia Fathy
Edited by Pamela Jahn