Located in Germany’s industrial Ruhr area, Oberhausen has a gritty appeal all its own. The International Short Film Festival Oberhausen has none of the glamour and rigid hierarchy of, say, Cannes; its egalitarian spirit and inclusiveness facilitate exchanges between directors, critics, programmers, professionals, and amateurs alike. Founded in 1954 and now approaching its 60th edition, Oberhausen is one of the oldest festivals specifically dedicated to short films. (In 1962, it was also famously the launching pad for the Oberhausen Manifesto by German filmmakers.) Festival director Lars Henrik Gass and independent committees (including Film Comment’s Olaf Möller) assemble a lineup that focuses on the experimental: moving-image works, documentaries straddling fiction and nonfiction, artist-made films, animations, and music videos (in the popular MuVi sidebar started in 1999). Rarely exceeding 40 minutes, the works are screened in main and regional competitions, a section spotlighting individual artists, and a curated themed program, which this year focused on the notion of “flatness.”
Artist and writer Aykan Safoğlu, born in Istanbul but based in Berlin and New York, where he is currently studying photography at Bard College, took the top prize in the international competition for his video Off-White Tulips. Setting found photographs, postcards, and newspaper clippings against a neutral background, this arresting filmic photomontage charts James Baldwin’s prolonged stays in Istanbul and explores his identity as a black gay author, and connects them with Safoğlu’s own family and personal history. The links between the two are at best tenuous and at times far-fetched but the film operates in a suitably poetic mode. Race and skin color are at the heart of Kenyan filmmaker Ng’endo Mukii’s promising debut, Yellow Fever. Also taking an autobiographical tack, Mukii mixes collage, animation, and vibrant dance sequences in a provocative way, though not altogether seamlessly. The title comes from a cosmetic treatment some African women undergo to pursue Western ideals of beauty, turning their skin a wan yellow.
A quirky twist on how body shape affects self-image, Tomasz Popakul’s animated short Ziegenort imagines a fisherman’s son who is part-fish, part-boy. Ziegenort met with an enthusiastic response from the audience and the jury who awarded the Polish director the Principal Prize in the main competition for what was among the festival’s most wonderful oddities. Popakul, who cuts an eccentric figure himself, studied animation at the Łódź Film School; Ziegenort was his graduation film. Dark and full of foreboding, the mostly black-and-white animated drawings are enlivened by the odd detail (an amber bead, a car light) rendered in green and red.
John Smith’s color-steeped Dad’s Stick, another prize-winner, is a tender portrait of the artist-filmmaker’s late father. It’s built around three paint-coated objects—a ruler, a stick, and a cup—that bespeak the father’s artistic calling. Sensuous close-ups of the objects set against colored backgrounds are overlaid with prominent captions and accompanied by discrete sounds (a spoon stirring, a man whistling) that bring the images to life. Buffalo Death Mask by Toronto-based experimental filmmaker and video artist Mike Hoolboom, another Oberhausen habitué, begins with handwritten captions beneath grainy black-and-white silent 16 mm film shots of a man’s face, pallid as a death mask (and covered with mysterious metallic objects that recall Chris Marker’s La Jetée). The sequence gives way to dreamlike footage of Toronto’s city-scape that turns to color, and a poignant off-camera exchange between Hoolboom and the Canadian painter Stephen Andrews, both of whom had been diagnosed with HIV and lost loved ones to AIDS. Accompanied rather than illustrated by enigmatic found footage in which fire and light motifs prevail, weighty topics such as life, love, death, and disease are discussed with refreshing candor and lightheartedness, even humor.
The Cloud of Unknowing
Destined for both cinemas and galleries, Singaporean director Ho Tzu Nyen’s shorts, shown in the profiled artists section, have been described as video paintings. Pictorial and cinematic references abound in his works, from misty landscapes familiar from Chinese painting invoked in The Cloud of Unknowing </em>(11) to the Caravaggio-esque post-apocalyptic tableaux vivants in Earth (09), whose haunting soundscape includes lengthy quotations from the films of Tarkovsky and Last Year at Marienbad. Ho Tzu Nyen demonstrates a fascination for peculiar physiognomy: three of the four films included in the second of two programs dedicated to his work—the diptych Newton (09) and Glen Gould (13) as well as The Cloud of Unknowing—feature the same bulky Asian albino man; the camera lingers on his mottled skin and white hair. Visually alluring and repulsive at the same time, these highly stylized films feel somewhat contrived in their relentless exploration of the same visual trope.
Whereas Ho Tzu Nyen’s films are on the baroque side, Helga Fanderl’s short film sequences, part of two suites of her works titled Constellations I and II, are deceptively simple. The two sequences consist of 21 and 23 modules respectively, made using a Super-8 camera and ranging from one to three minutes—the maximum length allowed for by a Super-8 film cassette. Fanderl uses her Super 8 in the way a painter might use a brush. Edited in the camera, her rhythmic films are composed of single, silent images. The only sound that accompanied them, in the case of Constellations I, was the whir of the Super-8 projector; in contrast, the second batch of films, 16 mm blow-ups of the originals, was projected in total silence. Each of these short shorts concentrates on one situation or image—a caged animal pacing in circles in Leopard (12); a fireworks display in Feuerwerk (00); birds picking at fruit on a persimmon tree in Kakibaum (11); or people skating on a frozen lake in Schlittschuhlaufen (2002)—out of which the filmmaker composes entire programs using a combinatory method that brings out the films’ formal and thematic affinities and contrasts.
Number 9 Green Oxidation and Rust
The strong and varied profiled-artist program continued with screenings of films by Luther Price (including a midnight “secret” screening of his 1991 Clown at a train station), Laure Prouvost, and three Croatian filmmakers active in the late Sixties and early Seventies (Petar Krelja, Krsto Papić, and Zoran Tadić), whose refreshing documentary films proved an unexpected hit. But the ambitious and timely thematic program “Flatness: Cinema After the Internet,” curated by Shama Khanna along with artists Oliver Laric, Anthea Hamilton, and (with the greatest success) Ed Atkins, turned out to be by and large disappointing. The roundtable discussion on the final day of the program highlighted the general confusion surrounding the catch-all use of “flatness” as a term, and as Khanna admitted, the artist-made films and videos in the program would ideally be seen individually on their own.
That’s partly also a function of watching a whole festival’s worth of shorts in succession. Viewers have to dip into and out of diverse aesthetic and psychological universes, with little time to adjust their vision. Call it an occupational hazard.