A train arriving at a station—it’s a famous image from early cinema with which we’re all familiar, but for this screening at the 61st Oberhausen International Short Film Festival, we are all asked to put on our 3-D glasses. The Lumière Brothers’ 1935 film L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat—shown as part of this year’s sidebar, “The Third Image: 3D Cinema as Experiment”—is a surprisingly enthralling “remake” of their better-known 1896 work, reshot in the 1930s with a stereoscopic film camera. Yet it was not the oncoming train but the people that caught my attention: as the pedestrians on the platform enter the frame from behind the camera, they turn to look back. A strange tension arises between their forward physical movement and backward glances, which seem to penetrate the lens and are directed at us. As if resurrecting the ghosts of the past, the 3-D effect makes the presence of the people on screen vividly felt, if only for a moment.
This largely forgotten curiosity turned out to be one of the 3-D program’s few highlights but also became a metaphor of the festival’s stance. Much like the people in L’Arrivee d’un train break through the screen with their gazes, Oberhausen also breaks through its relatively traditional cinema set-up to engage with broader issues in film culture. While the festival’s international competition looks straight at contemporary currents in short film, the special programs on distributors and archives ask us to take a moment to look off screen and celebrate behind-the-scenes activity. The Oberhausen Seminar, in its second edition this year, established an official space for the kind of critical conversation usually overheard between screenings or at the bar. This ethos of inclusivity stands out as a salient quality of the festival.
The Passion of Judas
The works in Oberhausen’s International Competition were screened in 10 programs. Audiences walked into the theaters not knowing what particular lineup the program might throw at them—an approach that encouraged independent views of how the films resonated with one another. For example, the theme of rituals pervaded one of the stronger programs (“International Competition 4”), which grouped together works from Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Latvia, Greece and Croatia. An Easter custom of stoning and burning a Judas doll was the subject of The Passion of Judas, from Spanish filmmaker David Pantaleón. The Biblical story of Jesus and Judas is staged by a group of people with intellectual disabilities in the style of absurdist theatre, the ethical implications of which brought about an uneasy yet dynamic tension. The breathtaking Corda, directed by Brazilian artist Pablo Lobato, observes a Catholic procession of worshippers packed stiflingly close to one another and taking tiny steps forward on their pilgrimage. In the film’s tight close-ups, drips of sweat can be seen trickling between the contours of squashed bodies that appear to merge into a single unified mass. The film’s strength derives from its ability to convey a physicality that turns into spiritual elation.
Blue and Red
Quietude disrupted by abrupt violence was another theme that cut across a number of programs. Zhao Tao’s Blue and Red presents what appears to be a peaceful portrait of everyday life in a public square in Guangzhou. As the film drifts between portraits of locals seated outdoors doused in blue emitted from an LED light source, we are encouraged to let our own thoughts meander, a process compromised by the sudden unrest in its closing minutes. Bringing to mind the red of the title, an explosive Bangkok conflict between protestors and police shatters the tranquillity and reminds us of the vulnerability of community while asking us to reconsider ownership in the context of public space. Akraam Zaatari’s Beirut Exploded Views similarly shatters the stillness of daily life. Tracking shots follow a number of young men toying with their mobile phones around construction sites. The final shot finds the camera taking on the perspective of a fighter jet, subjecting us to the ways in which disruption can occur without warning thanks to the current instability of the region. The inaugural “e-flux” prize-winner Air Time (Tiempo Aire) by Mexico’s Bruno Valera showcases a multi-layered assemblage of documentary footage shot between 1994 and 2013. Mixtures of home-movie material—spoken recollections and YouTube-style documentations of brutish behavior—make for an unsettling portrait of the many faces of violence. The aesthetic, as if still under construction, produces a tension through its unpredictability and expresses the interminable repercussions of brutality.
Sound of My Soul
While post-Internet art was the topic of the central program in Oberhausen two years ago, only a few films at this year’s edition explored the milieu. Many of the works felt like watching your laptop being taken over by a strange virus. Louis Henderson’s All That Is Solid attempts to demystify the ephemerality of our dot-whatever files in the age of the Cloud. Beginning its journey from a desktop image, the bodiless operator takes control of the screen and whisks us to Ghana where e-waste is broken down and burnt in order to extract the precious minerals, which are then resold as recycled hardware. In Turner Prize winner Laure Prouvost’s We Know We Are Just Pixels, the artist’s amiable quirky voice often present in her work is entirely replaced by disembodied captions. A community of pixelated images “speak” with threats and seduction, considerably darkening the tone of Prouvost’s usual genial charms but with the humour still intact. Wojciech Bąkowski’s Sound of My Soul (Głos mojej duszy), the Grand Prize winner, is a mischievously impenetrable animation featuring sketches of uneventful daily life invigorated by the sounds of mobile phone vibrations and popular music (the Spandau Ballet song of the title becomes a recurring theme). The film is composed of a language that uniquely contrasts the dynamic possibility of the digital with the tedious reality of its actual use in contemporary society.
Although the special focus on 3-D short films felt erratically curated, many films held their own. Timothy Geraghty’s Something Might Happen shows what appear to be simple scenes of quiet life in the forest that dissolve away into layers of soothing natural noise. The unassuming manner in which it allows its audience to explore the space created within the frame provided a welcome byway from the many 3-D titles that were determined to direct our gaze. Anthology Film Archives intervened with a recently restored film by Paul Sharits, 3D-Movie (75), shown for the first time to an audience, as he had shelved the work for unknown reasons. While Sharits is known for his aggressive flickers, his only 3-D work is unexpectedly subtle. What appear to be microscopic cells “germinate” the screen while gradual shifts in their movement and color scheme bring the complete image forth into being. Installed in one of the smaller theatres, Lucy Raven’s Curtains explores the mechanics of anaglyphic 3-D image-making through the metaphor of a shutting curtain. Red and blue versions of stills of office spaces are brought together from opposite sides of the screen. When the two overlap perfectly at the center, the momentary synchrony produces a 3-D effect. The offices are postproduction units for contemporary films, banal in the age of digital filmmaking; the choice encourages us to reflect on the labor that goes on behind image production in the 21st century.
The cinema of Takashi Ito, an experimental filmmaker from Japan, was a subject of one of the festival’s five artist profiles. His canonical work Spacy (81) consists of still images presented in highly coordinated, flipbook succession. Tinted blue, the photographs depict a basketball court with an easel holding a photograph of a near-identical image within it. An interplay between the different planes of depth delineated onscreen creates a tunnel effect that makes the audience feel like they’re being pulled on a roller coaster ride into the image, giving the illusion of three dimensions. While many of his works derive from variations on the same technique, the 2000s saw Ito branch out to involve human subjects. The stop-motion techniques in films like Sweet Life (Amai Seikatsu) convey characters on the edge, mostly young silent women with tendencies towards violence. (In a post-screening Q&A, Ito awkwardly confessed his wife’s worries that these stories were his fulfilment fantasies.) Unfortunately, his most recent, Last Angel (Saigo no tenshi), sees the filmmaker veer into conventional drama even further while largely abandoning his dynamic techniques.
Court of Miracles
The sidebar of presentations by film archives was the strongest section of the festival. British Film Institute’s Will Fowler presented a program of shorts by John Maybury, one of a number of filmmakers he highlights in the BFI program “This Is Now: Film and Video After Punk” that showcases 1980s British postpunk films (currently scheduled for the Museum of Modern Art early next year). Court of Miracles (82) pursues a rhythm-based editing that unfolds like a personal Super 8 manifesto with its arrangement of voiced short statements (“Love is when you don’t have to say fuck me”) and an intimacy characteristic of the film format. Anticipating his work in music video, the ecstatic Solitude (81) sees fashion designer David Holah immersed in a sequence of projector beams in a darkened room with The Jesus and Mary Chain blasting through the speakers. Japanese amateur films of the 1930s recently restored by the National Film Center were the theme of archivist Akira Tochigi’s presentation “In defense of amateurs.” Echoing efforts by the Orphan Film Symposium, Ogino Shigeji’s work in particular called to question amateur film as a category for his works ranged in style and format with refined confidence. Three out of the 400 Ogino films donated to NFC were showcased in the program and Machi (30), a 9.5 mm Japanese counterpart to Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, was a highlight with its wondrous superimpositions of urban life. Osaka-based Mori Kurenai’s abstract animation Senritsu (33) is a delightful dance of angular shapes that similarly shows the strong influence of German absolute film.
Archivist Mark Toscano of the Academy Film Archive has also embarked on rescue projects of films that would otherwise be shunned by the canon. Bruce Baillie’s Quick Billy Roll 47 (1968-70) was one of out a series of auxiliary footage shot during the period in which he made Quick Billy and occasionally screened with the principal movie. Despite its status as a side project, Baillie’s expert use of the Kodachrome film stock delicately handles the changes in shades of color conjured by the play of light coming through a window. Primary Stimulus (1977-80) by Robert Russett (who wrote Experimental Animation with Cecile Starr) is a jittering undulation of black and white animated horizontal lines that are also drawn onto the optical soundtrack to produce synchronized humming reverberations. Much as in moon blink, Rainer Kohlberger’s abstract film made of digital coding shown in the program by Austrian distributors sixpackfilm, the wavering effect generated by the hand-drawn lines engenders a tension that lifts the image towards us. Giving detailed accounts on how restoration projects are established and developed, the archival presentations not only presented wonderful films culled from the respective institutions but also provided Oberhausen audiences with insights into the engaging minutiae of archival practice.
On the last day, the participants of the Oberhausen Seminar organized a podium discussion where visitors were asked to indicate on a white sheet of paper where they felt they were positioned in relation to the “center” of the festival. The resulting frenzy of dots distributed across the illustrated survey made what was prescribed as the nucleus recede from our view. While reflecting the occasional unpredictability of the programs, the outcome demonstrated the inclusivity of the festival that welcomes artists, distributors, archivists and audiences to share the center and build a nexus for short film culture.