A Tour Through Oberhausen’s Programs
by CJ Johnson
Drawing from over 4,800 submissions, Oberhausen’s 48 shorts in the International Competition were almost guaranteed to be worthy, and many were. But the excellence and sophistication of the curation extended far beyond the ‘choosing’; it was the way each program contained films that were in dialogue with each other, that formed a cohesive session, that really impressed.
The festival is impeccably organised and promoted, with a program book weighing in at over half a kilogram. Billboards along the train and tram lines let us know it’s all happening here. There’s a hefty, visible presence, aided by striking graphic design: this is clearly and profoundly a cultural institution, in a way taking over a city that is perhaps not as interested as the festival would like. Or to put it another way, the festival May want to take over the city, but it’s not certain the city lets itself be taken over. The festival audience is not likely particularly local. Luckily, Oberhausen is extremely well served by train.
Program 1 was an experimental selection and a challenging entry point to a festival that ultimately yielded many, many more riches than this weakest grouping. Only the last film, Garbage Head, from Belarusian filmmaker Yuri Semashko, engaged me fully. Almost a one-man effort, in which Semashko himself plays a garbage man who goes on a strange journey with an object he picks up while working, the film’s oddball sense of humour played well to the crowd who, having sat through increasingly obscure work, may have welcomed the sense of a story and the generosity of spirit that Semashko’s work offered (as opposed to the sensory attack of Xiuhtecuhtli, from Mexican collective Colectivo Los Ingrávidos, which seemed designed to annoy us, and I suspect, for many, succeeded).
Program 2 coalesced around the theme of disruptive approaches to the cinema experience, best exemplified by the standout film from the selection, Apostles of Cinema, from the Tanzanian collective Ajabu Ajabu. A fascinating examination of street-level cinema distribution in Tanzania, it revealed not just a shadow industry but even a shadow shadow industry.
Program 3 clearly focussed on medical concerns and issues of differently abled existences. While some of the selections dragged, the final film, C-TV (If I Tell You I Like You) was a jolt of fresh air, a breezy, idiosyncratic and slyly witty deconstruction of our own inherent attitudes towards differently-abled people. It drew an appropriate audience response and was well programmed to close this particular selection.
Program 4 was esoteric and focused on the kind of video art more often seen in galleries than before a seated audience, which was a component of the entire competition and a signature feature of the Oberhausen selectors’ open-mindedness and tendency towards the experimental. Nothing stood out for me.
Program 5 opened strongly with Lori Teller’s Patient, a witty and wise, simple and moving examination of medical training techniques, focussed on the use of actors portraying patients for the sake of young physicians in training. There were also two strong ethnographic portraits, A Medic from Kyrgyzstan by Alizhan Nasirov and In The Lap of the Mountain by Indian director Adhiraj Kashyap. But the film that had the audience wrapped was the silent 35mm I. from Canadian Alexandre Larose.
Program 6 had two highly personal, intimate portraits of Austrian artists: Sasha Pirker’s Will Have Been and Christiana Perschon’s Bildwerden, which was the funniest film of the festival, in an incredibly Austrian way. As we watch 90 year old artist Isolde Maria Joham slowly ascend the stairs that allow her to paint her huge canvases, those canvases stand behind her, a testament to a monumental talent and a life lived with purpose.
Program 7 featured the strangest moment of the festival for me: after Yuri Muraoka introduced her film The Eyeball Person and her teenage daughter who, she told us, was the main actor in it, we saw that her daughter’s role in the film included being the object of a subway rider’s perverted gaze. It was a bizarre family affair, to say the least. The highlight of this program was Balls, from Gorana Jovanović, which was a beautifully shot and well structured documentary look at a peculiar subset of global football.
In Program 8, by far the most satisfying program of the international competition, Basil de Cunha’s 2720 was a knockout. De Cunha, a Swiss filmmaker of Portuguese heritage, uses the inhabitants of a favela-like neighbourhood on the outskirts of Lisbon to create an astonishingly vibrant portrait of a community while weaving two stories, both with strikingly clear narrative engines, through many more. De Cunha’s long Steadicam shots are luxuriant and precise, a kind of opulent contrast to this impoverished but often joyous spirit of a community where the monsters plaguing their daily lives are the police, an unseen but profound presence. By turns funny and extremely tense, this impeccably shot film, full of sun, colour and life, and filled with perfect performances by non-actor members of the community, will surely enjoy a great life globally.
Also excellent was Gretel Marin Palacio’s Roads of Lava, an intimate portrait of modern Cuba through the eyes and minds of two women and their young son. Deeply concerned about the country their boy is growing up in, we are allowed in to the most private of conversations, as Afibola tells her son Olorun about how his Blackness will challenge his entire existence. It’s a revealing documentary that also plays as a narrative, and watching it before reading about it, I was unsure whether it was documentary or fiction, and was engrossed either way.
Program 9 shifted to a focus on authoritarianism, with the jaw-dropping standout being a documentary featuring the Ukrainian scientists and safety engineers who were present and working during the occupation of Chernobyl by Russian forces in 2022. Chornobyl 22 intersperses their startling relegations with footage shot by ‘anonymous’, and shared with Ukrainian intelligence, of Russian armoured vehicles as they mobilised on Kyiv. This was urgent documentary filmmaking from the frontline, its topicality eerie and frightening.
More whimsical was artist Sun Xun’s take on his own two month hotel-room enforced quarantine in 2022, Shanghai in the Spring, which he created with only the materials available to him (including, it seems, a hotel corridor’s worth of beer bottles). Essentially a stop-motion film using found objects (including Xun’s facial hair, to great effect), the film becomes urgently political in its final moments with a bold statement of purpose written prominently and defiantly on screen as Xun, presumably free of his shackles, rides a bicycle down an eerily empty Shanghai street.
Ultimately, we the jury chose 2720 for the FIPRESCI Prize, with this justification: “For creating an astonishingly vibrant portrait of a community through the beauty and poetry of masterful narrative storytelling, we are awarding 2720 by Basil de Cunha.”
© FIPRESCI 2023