How to Regain Sovereignity in Troubling Times

in 67th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

by Elina Reitere

Elina Reitere follows traces of the pandemic in the Oberhausen International competition

My media diary of online film festivals 2021 suggests that we could take Rotterdam in February as a kind of departure when Covid started to manifest itself on a substantial level in the filmic image. Searching for it at Berlinale was already too late. But here, at the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen, it was almost everywhere: the presence of the global pandemic was not only as a topic, but it also started to inscribe itself into the materiality of the films themselves, changing how we use film as an epistemological tool to make sense of the world and, concurrently, perform a sort of ontological shift of how we anchor the film to the pro-filmic reality.

The FIPRESCI jury in Oberhausen 2021 watched an International Competition that consisted of 44 films from 34 countries. The Selection Committee on the festival’s website praised the selection as a state of the art of contemporary short film, and this is not to be denied. But throughout most of the films, we could detect a certain tendency towards extensive use of non-diegetic sound. To be more precise – the films whose soundscapes were rooted within the film’s universe were very few. After watching the whole competition, I found this conclusion so striking that it cannot be explained simply by a random coincidence.

One of the few films that used diegetic sound was I Look Forward to Our Independence by Bruna Carvalho Almeida and Brunna Laboisière (Brasil, Algeria, 2021.) In this case, the separation of the image from the sound had to be done for safety reasons: the film was shot partly undercover with a mobile phone during the demonstrations during the Algerian democracy movement, Hirak, in 2019. The film lasts for twenty minutes and uses mainly the narrator’s commentary. But right in the middle of the film, there are recordings of mass protests with the original sound, shot from a safe distance. This moment of classical documentary method, evoking man’s collision with oppressive power suddenly seems like a remarkable (and powerful) note from another era. Not that Covid had swept away the aggressiveness of the power structures, absolutely not. But it has changed the production circumstances by locking the filmmakers in their private environments and puts constraints on the usual production process. That has affected the relationship between the sound and image are being structured. In some cases, the images look completely divorced from the film’s sound, regardless of the type of the film. I could name some different films like Count (dir. Adjani Arumpac, Philippines, 2020), Cells and Glass (dir.Yuki Hayashi, Japan, 2020) or More Woman, More Cry (dir. Anne Haugsgjerd, Norway, 2021).

Diegetic sound is usually understood as a trace of reality, and it sustains our claims for a filmic image to be real or to be somehow connected to the pro-filmic event. But maybe now, in our current situation, we should look at this phenomenon of the extensive use of non-diegetic sound as a way for filmmakers to get a grip on the pandemic situation when you have lost the impression that you can control your life. Then, at least, you can control your artwork, your film. In such a case, the irreverence towards a diegetic sound might be an act of artists’ sovereignty over the circumstances. Thus, traces of the pandemic reality are present in every filmic image and sound. But they become noticeable through absence.

Elina Reitere
Edited by Justine Smith