Juggling Between War and Pandemic

in 68th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

by Ieva Sukyté

The 68th edition of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen opened with a protest by a group of environmentalists trying to save the Sterkrader Forest near Oberhausen as the local government wants to cut around 5,000 trees to build a new motorway. The oldest short film festival is known for being a place where video art and experimental films meet instead of presenting more conventional cinema as it were. The festival did not ban Russian films from its International Competition and screened one from each country – Ukraine and Russia. Western countries like Germany and France are more open to cultural dialogue and choose to be diplomatic on this matter rather than the ones more directly affected by it. Before the screening of his short film The Wind Probably (2021), the Ukrainian director Yuri Yefanov gave a short speech about the war in his country. It was shocking to hear the stories of bombed cities and teenagers being raped by the soldiers. However, equally devastating was listening to the speech of the mayor of Oberhausen at the closing ceremony of the festival. He said he was proud that the films from Russia and Ukraine were shown side by side at the festival. It seems that the world still doesn’t quite know how to deal with Russian culture since it has deep roots everywhere. But staying neutral or diplomatic is also not the answer – you can’t be good to everyone.

Politics set the undertone for the rest of the festival. Quite a few films in competition dealt with past or current traumas. Kim Mooyoung’s film Gold Dragon Mountain (Hwang Ryong San, 2021), for example, depicts the massacre of civilians in Geum-jeong-gul Cave in Gyeonggi-do in October 1950. More than 153 civilians were killed by the Korean military during the incident that, for many locals, left a huge scar on their chest. They lost their loved ones, but the government is still trying to keep things quiet. It’s not easy to speak the uncomfortable truth and face the consequences of wrong actions.

In his experimental film Seeing in the Dark (2021), Taiki Sakpisit talks about people accused of being communists. The same propaganda was used during the student protests in the 1960s and 1970s. However, the 29 minutes film does not quite work as a whole piece. It uses different film languages that make it feel more like a number of separate works rather than one. Nadia Granados’ monologue of a hit man (Monologo de un sicario, 2021), on the other hand, used a humorous approach to deal with corruption and male violence in Colombia. As you can tell from the film’s title, the short film is based on a monologue by a computerized male voice that talks about work and his relationship with women. Using low-quality aesthetics, archival footage and references from pop culture, the director perfectly combines absurdity with her own visual language.

As mentioned in the beginning, Oberhausen is a place where video art is screened alongside short films. That’s one of the strengths of the festival that, every year, draws many filmmakers and artists to the small city in West Germany for the event. You can notice that the screenings rooms are mostly filled with festival guests rather than city dwellers. For quite some time now the organisers and programmers ask the question: What is film? Looking at it from a current perspective, can it be a TikTok video? Or can a piece of video art primarily commissioned for contemporary art institutions be screened in the cinema? In the past, video art and films were always perceived as different art forms, especially in the way they were presented. Films are usually screened from the beginning to the end, whereas video art is shown in a loop in galleries or museums and can be watched from the middle, depending on the viewer. At Oberhausen, it was mesmerising to see how films and video art complement each other.

It’s no secret that audio-visual art is influenced by other fields as seen in Soapy Faggy (Bóng Xà Bông, 2021), directed by Vietnamese director Phạm Nguyễn Anh Tú. His visual language is based on fragments of pop culture, social media and video games, and he also uses absurd or nonsensical humour to talk about the rights of the LGBT+ community in Vietnam. A similar subject matter was at the heart of For Lilith (Für Lilith, 2021) by Georgian director Mariam Elene Gomelauri, but she used a completely different approach. She seemed more inspired by video art from the 1990s and also used excerpts from Georgian films to talk about how sexuality and gender are perceived in her still home country.

Around 50 films were screened at the International Competition. It’s just a small fraction of almost 600 films in total. Oberhausen was one of the first film festivals to go online during the pandemic, and after three years the team of the festival decided to have a hybrid edition – online and on-site. The changing habits of cinema-goers influenced many festivals to present films online. But usually, they screen the same audio-visual content. Oberhausen however, had two completely different programmes running from 30th April – 3rd May online, and from 4th – 9th May in cinemas, alongside its yearly seminar and workshop program. The final event this year focused on analogue film, offering four different workshops for different target groups like school children and people interested in the process of cinema. Nine people under the mentorship of the Film Farm collective representatives Philip Hoffmann, Scott Miller Berry, Terra Jean Long, Rob Butterworth, and Deirdre Logue set out to experiment with 16mm cameras. They used wildflowers for film developing, which resulted in unpredictable visual experiments shown on the last day of the festival. In a small cinema hall, film lab enthusiasts gathered to cheer for the participants. Being part of the event was like witnessing a cheerful family gathering.

After a couple of years spent in the oblivion of the pandemic, we finally seem to be going back to normal. However, all the guests still had to follow festival rules and wear masks inside screening halls. Obviously, cinema has to look for new ways to adapt to the consequences of screenings and festivals moving online. But seeing hundreds of people coming to Oberhausen felt reassuring that people miss watching films on the big screen, having discussions and interacting with one another.

Ieva Šukytė
Edited by Pamela Jahn