The Short Film Mecca Turns Sixty

in 60th International Short Film Festival, Oberhausen

by Aily Nash

Celebrating its 60th anniversary, the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen (Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen) opened with a ceremony commemorating its history through a program of video messages from festival alumni including John Smith, Werner Herzog, George Lucas (surprisingly), Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Miranda July, and others. Although this array certainly highlighted the festival’s most famous alumni, and a few regionally significant makers, it also evinced the festival’s commitment to a broad range of short form works. The selected films presented throughout the event surveyed several decades of the festival’s competition films and made evident its formally, culturally and aesthetically diverse spectrum of moving image presentation. In his opening speech, the festival director, Lars Henrik Gass, borrowed a quote from Kleist saying the festival should be simultaneously ‘righteous’ and ‘dreadful’. Oberhausen’s ethos to continually subvert, astound, surprise, and challenge the mainstream was conveyed from the get-go.

Herzog’s video message was sent from the Moroccan desert. Against a background of camels and a film crew, it was a fitting introduction to his eccentric 1969 film Precaution Against Fanatics (Massnahmen Gegen Fanatiker). John Smith’s Flag Mountain (2010) was another memorable selection from the opening ceremony. Smith charmingly recounted all the firsts Oberhausen had marked in his life: it was where he received his first award, first German kiss, first sekt, where he launched his first book and DVD, and where he met his wife. Alluding to this year’s festival theme, the evening was punctuated by performative readings by theater director, actor, and artist Herbert Fritsch. The selected texts reflected the history of the festival through manifestos, memoirs, and notable heckles by Peter Handke, Christoph Schlingensief, Jean-Marie Straub and others.

This year’s theme, Memories Can’t Wait, Film Without Film was curated by Finnish artist Mika Taanila. The program featured screenings and performances which, through the absence of film and the film image, spoke to expanded notions of moving image. Screening programs included works such as Walter Ruttman’s Weekend (1930), a radio piece made on the optical sound strip of 35mm film. The live programs got a mixed reception, with many of the performance works falling short of audience expectations, including Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder’s Stations of Light: Installation for Two Movies Theaters, One Audience, and Musician. The digitally manipulated image fell flat, described by a fellow audience member as “a screen saver,” the live music was underwhelming, and the artists’ positing of the experiential need for the audience to move between the two theaters came across as an empty gesture. In another program, Valie Export restaged her 1967 performance Abstract Film No. 1 — the embodied presence of this historically potent figure remained the lasting impression on most viewers, rather than the piece itself, for which she and an assistant pour water and paint down two long mirrors. It was followed by the overhead projector performance pieces written, illustrated, and performed by Daniel Barrow. The Canadian artist’s aesthetic and grandiloquence felt like the moving image equivalent of the indie band The Decemberists, which embody the zany 19th-century nostalgia prevalent in the early aughts—an already palpably dated sentiment which we’re perhaps not ready to revisit just yet. Though the festival emphasized that its theme was not looking back at the past, these particular programs failed to create the exuberance of live and present experience which one comes to expect from performance works. Often, they felt like historical pieces being displayed in a vitrine—the concept came through, yet the experience remained sealed off, failing to reach us.

Overall, this anniversary edition presented an affecting selection of films. The founding spirit of the festival, “to educate the populace and promote the welfare of our youth,” is demonstrated by its dedication to quality children’s programming, which began in 1978. The festival and its tradition of presenting challenging work that pushes the boundaries of cinema is well known for its 1962 Oberhausen Manifesto. The inspiring breadth of inclusivity in the works presented in the International Competition is unique. Over the ten programs, the festival explores all forms including, animations, documentaries, narratives, experimental and, of course, works that resist categorization. Besides the competition sections, there were five profile programs that highlighted the work of a single filmmaker or artist. Especially strong were the works of Lithuanian artist Deimantas Narkevicius and the unparalleled videos by Polish artist Wojciech Bakowski whose deeply personal mixed-media works took animation, narration, and structure to new territories. Oberhausen occupies a special place in the festival circuit as a mecca for those interested in the intersection of art and film.

Edited by Pamela Cohn