Two Film Poems Torn Out Of A Cinematic Anthology

in 69th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

by Hannes Wesselkämper

In an interview with fellow filmmaker Jonas Mekas in 1957, the German Dadaist Hans Richter explains the characteristics of a film poem: unlike the entertainment film, which Richter labels as “film novel,” the film poem is an “exploration into the realm of mood [and] lyrical sensation.” These films may be regarded as a universal expression of human emotions and could thus be understood by anyone. Also, following Richter’s emphasis on universality, such films may evolve over time and could be read differently over the years.

The well-curated programs at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen are interested in both the immediate emotional response as well as the discursive, often political aggregation of making-sense. Following Richter once more, who saw a film poem in every experimental film, the festival catalogue may likely be an anthology of film poems. It represents an ambitious compilation of experimental films, short fiction films, and documentaries that explore various modes of expression from subjective introspection to political accusation.

Yet I only want to highlight two films that may give an insight into this year’s international competition. Considering that the nine competition programs were mostly stitched together in  a careful manner, this almost feels like a violent act. At least, they were part of the same five-film program, even coupled together on position three and four. Both Lynne Sachs’ new film Swerve (2022) as well as Jonelle Twum’s I think of silence when I think of you (2022) address questions of community and alienation.

The oeuvre of filmmaker and poet Lynne Sachs encompasses over 40 films. Besides her latest work, the Oberhausen festival showed a retrospective program with twelve of Sachs’ films. Like most of these, Swerve is concerned with the interlocking of (written and spoken) language and images. In this case, most of the words are borrowed from sonnets by Filipino-American poet Paolo Javier, “a poet who thinks like a filmmaker,” as Sachs puts it, with herself being a “filmmaker who thinks like a poet.”

The most visible sign of this interlocking of language and film are graphically highlighted words from Javier’s poems that appear on the screen. Together with five actors and only two locations, these words function as protagonists in their own right. As they float through an Asian food court and a playground in New York City with a liquid, shiny appearance, Javier’s words challenge Sachs’ documentary-style images. This productive tension is embodied by five actors who perform mundane tasks at mundane places – but as exactly that: a performance. Swerve lets us understand the fragility of even the mundane. We see queer bodies, bodies of colour navigating public spaces that are marked by the pandemic. For these people and in these times, swerving rather than walking in a straight line becomes the predominant mode of movement.

In Jonelle Twum’s poetic exploration of family history, we are confronted with very different spaces: I think of silence when I think of you unfolds the story of a woman who migrates from Ghana to Sweden. What becomes of private spaces when they are only inhabited by way of memory? Twum’s voice-over muses on this presence of absence as well as on female bodies that are thrown into such unfamiliar surroundings. The director finds powerful words for this experience of alienation. Yet some things can only be said in silence: her voice-over is discontinued for a few moments as the subtitles further explain what is now not being said.

By confronting the image of an empty leather chair with multiple archival images, the alienation becomes graspable. Their characteristic red tint allude to a distant feeling of comfort that no chair could provide – as long as it furnishes spaces of otherness. Though rather essayistic in its nature, I think of silence when I think of you is a veritable film poem. It is exactly the mood of the images and the lyrical quality of their montage (not to mention the brilliant voice-over) that fit well into Hans Richter’s above-mentioned definition.

And as vague as such definitions may be, it takes emotional clemency and smart curating to be able to really comprehend such films. While their impact always depends on each spectator for their own, it feels reassuring to know that there are steadfast places of curating film poems like these. In 2023, the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen is still one of those places – 69 years and counting.


Hannes Wesselkämper
Edited by CJ Johnson