Strategies of Resistance?

in 54th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

by Rüdiger Suchsland

Forty years ago, everything seemed to be quite easy. In Paris, the rebellious youth was on the barricades, fighting against an ossified, bourgeois and all too conservative society. As in Berlin and in Berkeley, in some eyes the revolution just seemed to be a question of days. Most of the filmmakers exercised solidarity with the demonstrators. Just a few days before the famous break off of the Festival du Film of Cannes, the 14th Kurzfilmtage of Oberhausen changed into a ‘Red Festival’. Hellmuth Costard’s Of Special Merit (Besonders wertvoll) provoked an uprise: A talking penis in that film alarmed the German censorship board, which at that time had to defend a so called Sittenklausel (decency clause). The film had therefore been dropped by the festival. Demonstrations and counter-events started, jury members like writer Peter Handke resigned, and festival director Hilmar Hoffmann organized bus-trips to the University of Bochum, where the film would be showed.

Once upon a time. And today? In some countries it is fashionable again to speak about political ‘change’ but the face of cinema had changed long ago – in the other direction. Political statements are out and engagement does not seem to be really fashionable. Forty years after the mythic year ‘1968’ the festival of Oberhausen looked back – in the international competition as well as in two special film-sections and in the discussion-program Podium (which after just three years already is an institution of the Kurzfilmtage) – and asked what could be the ‘aesthetic strategies of resistance’ in contemporary cinema.

The films of the International Competition seemed to be, on the surface, quite unaffected by these questions. A variegated gay mixture of 62 films showed different formats, genres, length and, obviously, strength. Nevertheless, the selection offered some surprisingly cleat tendencies.

Many filmmakers tried to provide classical narrative cinema in a nutshell, while those films, which based just on one single idea, or just one final gag, were a minority, and experimental hardcore cinema stagnated. One could note a fondness for off-narration and for stories around the subject of aging and seniority as well as for decline and dementia.

Surprisingly strong were nearly all the films from Eastern Europe: For example Alexandra from Romanian director Radu Jude. In only 20 minutes, he – together with a breathless hand-held camera – unfolds out of the image an apparently harmonious nuclear family – not just the interior view of a failed love-relationship but the whole drama of post-socialist transformation, and the effects of hyper capitalism on ordinary life.

Those effects are as well the subject of Vixen Academy by young Russian director Alina Rudnitskaya. In her film she shows the class-routine of those new types of Russian schools: In them, for a huge amount of money, women learn; how to become a bitch, how to dress as flamboyant and vulgar as possible for a potential lover and how to seduce men. The highest target: To marry a millionaire and to snag as much cash as possible out of every man around. Rudnitskaya, who is working on a long-version of that film, succeeds in finding breathtaking images. Her film is full of humor, but bitter at the same time. The director allows every woman to keep her dignity and privacy; she gives motivations and shows the daily survival-fight of young women in Russia, left helpless and alone by a male-dominated society of boozing fathers and beating husbands. Without escaping into clichés, the film shows the reality behind the glittering facade of the New Russia.

Breathtaking inside-shots of a different kind are what the extraordinarily made but unfortunately, from all juries, ignored Croatian film Bad Blue Boys gives us. Director Branko Schmidt starts with documentary footage of the notorious hooligan-battle between supporters of football-clubs Dynamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade in Zagreb on 13th May 1990. This was a ravage clash of Croatian and Serb nationalism and a fire signal for the upcoming civil war in Yugoslavia. Then Schmidt cuts to the kitschy relief-images of a war memorial in favor of those Zagreb-fans, who died in the civil war. And it becomes clear: With the beginning of the war, the majority of the hooligans entered the militias, which were responsible for the ugliest war crimes of the following years. Schmidt’s dark reportage portrays a man, whose face is never been shown, but is obviously a veteran of the militia, tormented by the trauma of war up to today. He suffers depression and we watch him being tattooed, meeting and drinking with his old comrades, visiting an illegal weapon-depot, and banging in the forest – a psychological profile of contemporary fascism.

A comparatively slick and smooth side of Czarism with a democratic face is shown in the FIPRESCI-award-winning-film The Unseen (Nezrimoe) by Russian director Pavel Medvedev. Exemplified by the G8-summit of St. Petersburg in 2006, the film reveals the rituals of the contemporary factory of politics: the tired choreography of the press, the brutal ballet of a horrendous security-machine, and the rusty gestures of symbolic policy. Like an ethnologist, Medvedev draws us nearer to his subject from the boundaries without commentary, without additional music but with pictures full of decent, precise ability and observation, which by the way tell a lot about the actual state in the Russia of the oligarchs, and of Putinism.

Last not least there was a jewel far away from everything: Anna Abrahams film 5 Walks. Hercynia Silva from the Netherlands: An un-didactic walk through the cultural history of the forest that is both subtle and complex.

Perhaps all those films showed potential strategies and gave some idea as to what resistance in cinema could mean. But in comparison to older films, the new ones seemed much too wise and somewhat cowardice. Analysis dominates, so clever and reflected, that all rage cools down at some point, and every clear approach becomes invisible. The guts to judge, to be one-sided, to be polemic, the engagement which stays at the beginning of all politics, is missing. Ideological resignation is visible.

The discussion panels gave more reason for optimism. The confrontation of Young and Old ended in favor of the Old. Frankfurt film scientist Heide Schlüpmann argued that cinema is something collective, and resistance means to stick to the opposition to mainstream. Of course we do miss this in the contemporary film scene in general but it is at least a compliment due to the festival of Oberhausen.

Edited by Steven Yates