A Rose is a Rose: The 2020 International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

in 66th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

by Lesley Chow

As this summer’s film festivals dropped out, one by one, due to COVID, one German event managed to save itself by going online. Oberhausen, the oldest short film festival in Europe, put on a comprehensive 66th edition, with a huge international competition and numerous sidebars. Mindful of the advantages of online exhibition – attracting viewers who might not otherwise physically attend – director Lars Henrik Gass was nonetheless keen to avoid a “Netflix situation” of leisurely, piecemeal browsing and wanted to create a sense of “internet urgency”. He insisted on strict 48-hour windows for viewing and bracketed most screenings with introductions and comments from the filmmakers. 

Watching as a FIPRESCI festival juror from Australia, at all hours of night and day, I was overwhelmed by the breadth of the international program, with its dizzying, often undifferentiated, mix of documentaries, animation, narrative, and formally experimental shorts. Nevertheless, as a three-member jury, we reached a surprisingly easy consensus on the notable films.

First up, the winner of our Jury Prize was Shanghai artist Li Xiaofei’s I am the People_I (2020), a structurally brilliant yet necessarily indirect diagnosis of a culture in crisis. It comprises a series of interviews in which each subject describes, with fastidious delicacy, an experience or observation that they have found hard to process. Thinking before our eyes, often struggling or smiling, each person explores the contradiction within their memory, trying to work out what they have been unable to resolve or get past. With these micro-portraits of “armchair philosophers”, Li builds a slow-burning picture of the state of the country, comparable with Robert Musil’s depiction of Austria in the novel The Man Without Qualities. Like Musil’s epic, Li’s film is a portrait of an atomised society on the verge of hurtling into darkness.

Another standout from the international competition was Paddy Hay’s Cuckoo Roller (2019), a wordless 15-minute thriller which strikes pleasing, discordant notes with its tone and its soundtrack. The film is as unwavering as the gaze of its protagonist: a young man who runs wildly from the city streets towards the bush, in search of an encounter or at least some form of collision. Hay achieves the grip of an apocalyptic drama without resorting to genre clichés.

In addition to its competition sections, Oberhausen screened retrospectives for several European directors, including Susannah Gent, Henri Plaat, Maya Schweizer and, best of all, Katrina Daschner, whose magnificent silent Seas of Pearls was a highlight of the 2016 festival circuit. I would liken Daschner, a mid-career artist based in Vienna, to the Australian choreographer Meryl Tankard for the fearless extravagance of her ideas: her works float on a high-spirited delirium which is easy to parody but rarely matched.

However, the most successful programs overall were the showcases from LIMA, Amsterdam’s platform for new media art, and Light Cone, the longstanding French distributor of experimental film. Highlights from LIMA included All, or Nothing at All (2019) by Broersen and Lukács, the Dutch duo who continue to spin ghostly, enchanted cities out of the thin air of CGI, and Antonin De Bemels’ experimental movement piece MUCUS (2019), its stunning formal jolts set off nicely by a bookish opening. The latter is part of a trilogy of dance-inflected films, in which De Bemels whips up a surprisingly intense vortex from minimal components.

Light Cone showed Further Radical (2020), a new work from the witty young artist Stefano Canapa. In his 2017 A Radical Film, Canapa worked by laying thin slices of radish on unexposed film; here he places the same material on an optical printer. The black radish is the radical of the title: in a play on etymology, the film is said to be a study of roots, of the fundamentals of organisms as well as filmmaking. Further Radical keeps re-slicing its subject, giving us variations on structure and contour which fill the screen. These micro-textures are made overwhelming, blasting us between flashes of light, as if a series of radical revelations is taking place. How can a solo vegetable be so compelling? The translucent white flesh, with its crisp black coating, is an ideal medium for projection to the extent that the film persuades us it is about the origins of cinema!

Finally, for pure sensual pleasure – and more botanical richness – we need to talk about Jayne Parker’s Amaryllis, a wondrous 16mm which floods us with the joy of red. In studying the amaryllis flower, named for the passionate girl of Greek myth, Parker gives us such brilliant, heart-stopping reds that I was reminded of cinema’s greatest uses of pigment, from the Kinemacolor pictures of the 1910s to the saturated Technicolor of Allan Dwan’s Slightly Scarlet (1956). I have to say: I don’t get Rothko, I don’t really get Delacroix, but for me, blazing color on film is the best thing there is.

Lesley Chow