Time, Duration, History By Dana Linssen

Not all films need to be understood, according to the programmers of the 51st Kurzfilmtage in Oberhausen . A credo that resulted in an remarkably consistent selection for the international competition: messages from a confusing world.

Even after 51 years for specialised short film festivals like that of Oberhausen the definition of a short film is still not that obvious. It has to be shorter than 60 minutes in any case. But that is merely a formal description, a criterion that for a curator of an exhibition of paintings for instance would mean that he was only to select miniatures, regardless of what they represent or express. Accordingly a ‘short film’ is more than just a ‘short’ film – nowadays a film that takes less than two hours is also a short film. So blessed are the Germans and Flemish who’s languages provide actual words for short film: ‘Kurzfilm’ or ‘kortfilm’, which allows the films to become an entity of their own. One that is defined however by the fact that it’s limited duration determines the way in which it condenses in time (traditional) filmic and narrative means.

These ponderings keep concerning the critical reception of shorts. And also encouraged the work of the FIPRESCI-jury at the 51 st Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen this year, and in particular the discussions on the 66 films that were shown in the international competition of the 51 st Kurfzfilmtage, whether they were fast or slow, took only 120 seconds (the shortest entry) of 35 minutes (the longest), personal, political (and more often a combination of both), funny, loudmouthing, silent, hermetic, strange, annoying, melancholic or just unabashed unspeakably beautiful.

Do we need to classify?

Or are they just the filmic equivalent of the ‘essence’, used by other filmmakers to be diluted to perfume or an even more volatile eau de toilette. Dangerously strong to scent. Addictive. Hallucinating. And sometimes so bedazzling that it might take a while before one recognizes the original aroma. Is it fiction or documentary (and the more so an intermediate form)? Is it a diary, a cry for help, a joke, old or new footage, a poem or a painting?

It must have been that gratifying confusion that inspired the programmers of Oberhausen . Director Lars Henrik Gass pointed out in the catalogue that they choose what they didn’t understand. And this article of faith was repeated on the t-shirts of the staff: ‘One doesn’t need to understand all films’ (which off course implies that at least a certain selection would be understandable to a given spectator).

As with most films the act of understanding is more challenging than the fact of understanding.

The films that more or less invite or force you to embark on their journeys all were travelogues of some sort. Sometimes their range was as wide as the world, sometimes as infinite as a hotel room. The one for instance that inspired John Smith (1952) on 12 november 2004, the same day Yasser Arafat was buried in Ramallah, to a journey back in time. Throwing Stones is the third in his hotel room-films. Through seemingly free, but in fact highly structures associations he guides the spectator (and in his case also listener) back to other hotel rooms and historical events. Bed, mirror, desk, the picture on the wall – that’s all he needs to reflect in a both personal and analytic way on the world post 9/11.

Veteran short film maker Abigail Child also travels in time, although forward, in The Future is Behind You, by working with found footage from an anonymous Bavarian family archive from the thirties and quotations from the recent American Patriot Act. Are memories only unreliable when they serve as explanation, is the key-sentence of the voice-over.

And how (un)reliable are your own experiences, even when the are recorded by the camera? That is the main concern of Malus by Ange Leccia (1952) and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster (1965). They invite the viewer to enrol in a science fiction-like travelogue about a storm in the American desert near Los Alamos , which may very well have been an experiment with a new climatologic weapon. An all too common natural phenomenon, like the wind, is made strange by the suggestion that it is not so natural after all.

Laura Waddington (1970, also honoured with a retrospective of her work) literally opened her eye, the lens of her tiny dv-camera for thousands of refugees and illegal immigrants that reside in the French Red Cross camp at Sangatte. The searchlights cut the darkness into pieces, shadows appear and disappear, the mere shades of human beings that often more than two year before fled from Irak of Afghanistan. Hour after hour they try to escape from the camp, hoping to enter the Chunnel and cross their final border, between France and England . The images from Border contain a silent and sad beauty that does not need to be understood. They pilot you in something more essential: the actual experience of sweat, cold and alienation.