Rising to the Challenge of Contemporary Shorts in Oberhausen
by Andrea Toal
There's no two ways about it, Germany's Oberhausen International Short Film Festival is a challenging five days. First, there's the sheer number of films on show -- 95 films in the international and German competitions combined, 120 in the hugely ambitious retrospective put together to mark the festival's 50th anniversary, plus a separate music video competition, a strand dedicated to the next 50 years of short film plus tributes to the work of underground Japanese filmmaker Yamada Isao and British artist Jayne Parker. Watching 30 odd films a day it becomes virtually impossible to maintain a critical distance. The volume and diversity of the films on show almost overwhelms individual distinction, although it does provide a very real sense of the energy, possibility, and daring of modern short film.
The biggest challenge, however, is that posed by the works themselves. Oberhausen has a reputation for selecting films that resist easy classification and push at the boundaries of established structures and formats. Inevitably some of the films founder under the weight of their ambition, but many show how short film has survived its marginalization and lack of financial support. Festival director Lars Henrik Gass claims to be most interested in "the way the short form regenerates cinema itself," rather than the calling-card notion of shorts that implies the medium serves only as a showcase for a young director's technical skill. The focus of the films selected for Oberhausen is often innovation and non-conformity and with short film having attracted as many artists as aspiring feature directors it's perfectly poised to introduce new concepts and visual styles into the cinematic tradition.
There were a staggering 3,967 films submitted to this year's international competition. The 68 selected came from 36 different countries, something of a feat given the lack of infrastructure for short film distribution. Gass explained that increasingly the festival must conduct its own research into short film production abroad, particularly in Eastern Europe where the collapse of centralized, state-controlled film bodies has made the work harder to locate. Indeed, one of the joint winners of this year's grand prize of the City of Oberhausen represented one of the smaller film nations. "Od -- El camino" by Columbian director Martin Mejia is a psychological study of a man whose only son is ill and apparently was chosen largely because of its original aesthetic and effective blurring of the boundaries between the real and the imaginary. The other winner was a symbolic examination of the distance between two women called "La Tresse de Ma Mere" by Iris Sara Schiller and was a little oblique for my tastes. Other instances of films from traditionally under-represented countries included "The Epilogue" by Kenyan director William Owusu, a socially aware abstract story set predominantly in a men's room in which a new journalist must uncover the reasons why a colleague has stopped writing, and a moving Taiwanese animation called "Papa Blue" about a father's descent into depression amid celebrations of Taiwan's nationhood.
The films in competition are arranged thematically, which Gass says serves mainly as a way to market individual screenings, though he also hopes it will encourage a consideration of concepts over form. So student films are shown together with work by more established filmmakers, documentaries sit alongside experimental fictions, and narratives follow on from one-trick ponies and animation. Some of the groupings work better than others. A Man's World was the title given to the selection that included both Abigail Child's film "Cake and Steak," a questioning of American values that through its montage of home movie footage focuses largely on the roles prescribed for women, and a bizarre Swiss film called "Les Tartines" in which a man objects to his girlfriends use of the term "take me from behind" (because of the word "take") and insists on using "butties" as a euphemism. But a surprising number of films shared a common theme. Migration, and the sense of dislocation that often accompanies it, was a subject that recurred in a number of works. The most conventional treatment was Marjoleine Boonstra's "Britanya," which recalls Michael Winterbottom's recent feature "In This World." Boonstra spoke to immigrants housed in the controversial Sangatte refugee centre in France awaiting a chance to enter Britain. A more innovative approach was taken by Alnoor Dewshi in "77 Beds," which follows a young urban nomad as he attempts to recall every bed he has ever slept in, and by Milan Balog in "1.35," a moving documentary about an exile who returns to Czechoslovakia and his lost love after 30 years. "Traveller's Tales" by Tim Sharp involves a voiceover recounting stories of travel, migration, and Wittgenstein's theories on blurring inspired by found footage, outtakes from a documentary on desert nomads.
Andrea Arnold's "WASP" and "Two Cars, One Night" by New Zealand director Taika Waititi are both examples of narrative-based fictions which stood out in the competition. Grittily shot and set on an English council estate, "WASP" tells of a young single mother who abandons her four children to go on a date with an old flame. The shocking final scene and nuanced performances leave an indelible impression. Beautifully shot in black and white, "Two Cars, One Night" is a gentle account of the affection that develops between a 12-year-old girl and nine-year-old boy as they wait in adjacent cars for their parents to leave a bar.
But narrative works were by no means prevalent. Jan Verbeek's "On a Wednesday Night in Tokyo" is simply a single-take video of a huge number of commuters entering an already packed train before the doors are forced closed. "Dialog" by Vadim Zakharov uses the shadows of clothes on a clothesline flapping in the wind to the sound of a heated conversation as a metaphor for Israel Palestine relations. Pascal Lievre's very funny film "L'Axe du Mal" features a kitsch couple honeymooning at Niagara Falls singing George Bush's axis of evil speech as the words to a pop song. Each of these is slight (some might say too slight) and none lasts longer than six minutes -- but they do show that a density of meaning is possible in even the shortest of shorts and that short filmmakers are unafraid to confront the moving image as an instrument of provocation and power.
The winner of the German competition was "Living a Beautiful Life" by Corinna Schnitt. Filmed as a spoof documentary it sought to expose the hollowness of a wealthy Los Angeles couple's claims of happiness as they talk to camera about their lives and hopes for the future. All well and good, but its expose of social mores had little new to say and the whole film came to feel like something of a cheap shot.
Much more impressive was the 50-year retrospective of short film in Oberhausen. Curated by Angela Haardt, director of the festival from 1990 to 1997, it sought less to be a historical document of the event's past than a celebration of the transcendent values Oberhausen still seeks to embody today. Many of the big names who have shown their films at the festival were included (Polanski, George Lucas, Svankmajer, Resnais, and Sokurov to name but a few) but Haardt tried to feature their lesser known works. Aside from this consideration (and several stipulations made by the festival organisers) she put the program together intuitively, seeking out films with a contemporary resonance and those that showed clear originality. The retrospective was arranged chronologically, kicking off with a film about the town of Oberhausen and "Warszawa 56," by Jerzy Bossak and Jaroslaw Brzozowski, about the dangers facing inhabitants of Warsaw's old town after the extensive bombing it underwent in World War II. Commercials, music videos, documentaries, and experimental works were all represented.
Oberhausen is essentially a festival for filmmakers. With many short films now being made in obscurity with little hope of commercial success festivals such as Oberhausen provide an opportunity for them to be seen, for the filmmakers to meet and exchange ideas with others working in the same field, and for audiences to respond directly to the work. In the festival cafes and bars every second conversation involves filmmakers exchanging ideas and gauging reactions. For this reason Oberhausen remains an important festival, if not always an easy one.