The Past Inside the Present

in 61st International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

by Carolin Weidner

What haunts me most when I think back to the Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen is not only the way directors dealt with the past in their work, but also how the festival focussed on that particular topic. This was my first year in Oberhausen, so I am not sure about the festival’s politics, even though I guess there is some priority in highlighting (short) film history in a serious manner. I think about the many programs that were curated around film archives from different countries; time traveling that was undertaken by Alejandro Bachmann from the Austrian Film Museum and which took us to the early years of the twentieth century (with the restored trailer of Pudowkin’s “Mat” (1927), or a beautiful thirteen minute short called “Prater” by Friedrich Kuplent from 1929 – and, not to forget: “Sculpteur Moderne” by Segundo de Chomón (1908), which is wonderfully colored and based on some visual effects that look funny nowadays but must have been quite impressive back then). What I will also keep in mind was William Fowler’s presentation of some of John Maybury’s works, embedded in a program from the BFI National Archive, London. I just found out that Fowler curated a whole block for BFI this April: “This is Now: Film and Video After Punk – Rediscovering underground film 1979-1985”. So it is great that the visitors in Oberhausen were able to see at least a tiny bit of that surely incredible program during this festival. I still wonder, what that Synthie-Loop in Maybury’s “The Technology of Souls” (1981) was that felt so familiar. There is something fascinating about that stylish, cold, glamourous approach to creating images.

Related to that (though in the same way not at all) was a program that captured some of Derek Jarman’s works, restored Super 8 films he made during a period of ten years from 1972 til 1982. Jarman used to play his own records during the screenings, so most of the films don’t have the original soundtrack, some are silent. In the restoration process musicians were asked to provide music for the films – and I was delighted to hear that Coil recorded some of them. Jarman’s pieces “Tarot” (1973) and “Sulphur” (1973) worked incredibly well with that darkish industrial sound. I’d also like to mention one of the Oberhausen Profiles; this year the festival prepared some special screenings in honor of the work of Ito Takashi (who also had his film “Saigo no Tenshi / Last Angel” in the International Competition), Erkka Nissinen, Jennifer Reeder, and Vipan Vijay, as well as William Raban. Not only does Raban seem to be a great human being, but he creates with his distant, but in some ways also affectionate view on British society, very interesting, tasteful, and reasoned films. Speaking about sound in film, as I remember, he used to collaborate with David Cunningham, who is responsible for some brilliant “noise” in his works. I was happy to discover that connection.

Thinking about archives and the endless hype that seems to overrun today’s film scene (which is a great opportunity for me to discover a lot of artistic material, but besides a major byproduct of the aspiring and essential aim to save as much films from its natural decomposition) it is important to me to think about this phenomenon also in respect of this year’s competition. There were a lot of artists (interestingly, mostly female) who delved into archives as well, but personal ones. Mostly for the purpose of understanding, these directors used film and photographs found in family archives to explore identities that no longer exist. Norwegian artist Anne Haugsgjerd, for instance, tried to expose her father’s persona: a painter, who created art continuously but never exhibited anything. In her film “Opp ned er alt abstrakt, sa pappa / Upside Down Everything Is Abstract, My Father Said” the daughter steps into her father’s work and mixes that journey with photographs and static shots from her balcony, where she used to make pictures of her father’s paintings, perhaps to make his work accessible again (or better: for the first time). Thinking about “Upside Down” in that way, I can see a deeper connection to what I’ve said formerly about the role of archives. A diffrent approach was found in Michelle Citron’s work “Leftovers”. Here Citron tried to retrace the (unknown) relationship of a female couple, using only the evidence she found in a massive estate, including photographs and other items. The result is very pretty, so it is sad. This is probably commonplace, but Oberhausen made me think about how to deal with that huge body of material, and what it tells us. Furthermore, and this is something I can’t ignore, how it maybe also keeps us from being really innovative with what the present delivers. I can’t help but imagining how this giant treasure from the past makes us avoid taking a firm stand sometimes. Perhaps that happended in this report, too, which could be a symptom of a current trend.

Edited by Tara Judah