With six decades under its belt, the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen continues to present short form works that subvert and astonish. Nestled in the western corner of Germany, the quiet town of Oberhausen and its neighboring post-industrial cities in the Ruhr valley are referred to as the Detroit of Germany. The founding spirit of the festival, “to educate the populace and promote the welfare of our youth,” is still profoundly felt and demonstrated by its dedication to quality children’s programming, which began in 1978. The festival is a proponent of challenging work that pushes contemporary boundaries of cinema and has been historically known for its 1962 Oberhausen Manifesto—which, to this day, has inscribed a tradition of evolution and renewed moving image forms.
The festival’s inspiring breadth of inclusivity explores animations, documentaries, narratives, experimental film, and, of course, works that resist categorization, constantly returning to the fundamental question: what is film? The competition sections include International, German, the regional North Rhine-Westphalia, Children’s and Youth, and MuVi (music video). In addition, the festival showcases moving-image distributors and archives from around the world, and this year’s theme program, Memories Can’t Wait—Film without Film, was curated by Finnish artist Mika Taanila. The Profile programs featured the work of Wojciech Bąkowski, Aryan Kaganof, Mara Mattuschka, and Lithuanian artist Deimantas Narkevičius, whose fascinating early shorts were a highlight of the week. Among them was Once in the XX Century (2004), in which Narkevičius addresses the cycles of history by reversing TV footage of the removal of a public monument of Lenin in Lithuania in 1991, and in The Role of a Lifetime (2003), he shares Peter Watkins’s brilliant ruminations on the nature of documentary and his wariness of its claims to authenticity.
Presented in the Germany Competition section, Sylvia Schedelbauer’s Sea of Vapors (2014) was, in its initial iteration, a live performance piece. The now self-contained film is superbly realized; with a keen attention to form, Schedelbauer masterfully imparts tone and emotion through audiovisual means. The sensate work pulses with poetic imagery, recurring allusions to vessels and openings—a bowl held between hands, the space between two fingers, and voluptuous lips are superimposed over elemental landscapes—sun and forest, ocean and moon. Images of a body are intimate and close-up, rendered in lush, nuanced black-and-white celluloid tones. An ethereal soundscape composed by Jeff Surak is reassuringly expansive, drawing us out from the claustrophobic image into the universal. The film conveys the trepidation with which one bares one’s innermost, vulnerable space, and is palpably felt through the strobing effect—it is as if one is being consumed by another, or by the pull of tides. And to similar effect it draws in the viewer, down into the open vessels, engulfing us into a hyper-subjective space, with room for us to experience our own seas of consumption.
While shooting his feature Pipeline (2013), which recently screened at MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight, Vitaly Mansky came upon the village of Mena in northern Ukraine, where he shot The Eternal Light (2014), a short observational documentary. Filmed just shy of a year before its world premiere at Oberhausen, the film documents the village’s ceremony on Victory Day, which celebrates the capitulation of Nazi Germany on May 9, 1945. Before Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union, the commemoratory flame in every town’s victory memorial burned continuously. Twenty years ago, they were turned off—“gas is expensive,” the veterans lamented—and now it’s only lit for about 30 seconds on this one day each year. Mansky’s nuanced portrait of Victory Day in Mena subtly depicts the intertwining of the personal with the political, with the piece focusing on one veteran as he shaves and prepares himself for the day. The historical is seen in relation to Ukraine’s present turmoil with Russia, and the implications of international infrastructure on local habitus are acute.
Oberhausen’s widely cast net reaches for moving image works beyond the cinema. Loretta Fahrenholz regularly shows in the contemporary art context, and her video My Throat, My Air (2013) was exhibited at Ludlow 38 in New York last fall. In this experimental chamber piece, Fahrenholz’s characters inhabit a domestic space where the relations between persons are left ambiguous. In one of the various pastel-painted rooms of a Munich apartment, a woman dressed in a sexy pilot’s outfit (the kind one might find at a costume shop) stands in front of an older man (Ulli Lommel, Warhol and Fassbinder collaborator and horror movie maker) seated on an office chair, and seduces him to go with her to the non-material world from which she came. The subjects’ isolated moments of play unfold within each scene with little causal link between them, rather, they are threaded together by cultural objects. Two young girls apply face paint; one hums “Für Elise” as the camera then cuts to a woman playing the piece on an upright piano, a disco ball sparkles light across her and a pair of parakeets beside her. The video begins and ends with symmetrical Rorschach-like shapes animated to speak, these anthropomorphized image elements reminiscent of those found in Ed Atkins’s work.
Also exploring private rituals of domesticity, Robert Beavers’s Listening to the Space in My Room (2013) is an elegant homage to his former Swiss residence and the elderly landlords who inhabited a portion of the house. Both give us access to intimate moments of art-making, drawing, the playing of classical music, cleaning, and gardening, yet by entirely different means and to wholly different effect. The vantage point of the maker guides the form here; Beavers is fully present, his voice is sporadic, but his “kino-eye” constant. The opening and closing of the lens transitions in and out of black, encapsulating and suspending each moment into distinct bubbles of time and access. The allusion to seasons points to ephemerality and the passing time, yet there is no chronology here—Beavers focuses on the effervescence of the present moment. J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites are heard over swaths of light illuminating vibrant squares of ochre fabric; the camera pans down to black and into another roomwhere we pause to watch the soft undulations of a glass door framing wildflowers in the sunlight. These intimately portrayed moments are made palpable through Beavers’s rigorous attention to detail: a private breakfast is conveyed through the familiar texture of seersucker pajamas, and the deep umber resting at the bottom of a delicate porcelain tea cup and its distinct soft clink as it rests back down onto the saucer. These serene gems culled from a secluded life are deeply affecting because they do not feel owned. They’re self-contained and yet belong to all of us—Beavers has meticulously collected and benevolently shared them.
In one of the festival’s featured programs on archives, Beavers also presented the Temenos, which he co-founded in the early ’70s with filmmaker Gregory J. Markopoulos. He describes the project as a monographic archive, preserving the films and documents related to the filmmakers’ work. Presently, its major project is the presentation of the Eniaios (1948 – c. 1990), a magnum opus by Markopoulos. Ten hours of this 80-hour film are only shown every four years at the Temenos screening site near Lyssarea, Greece. Two of Markopoulos’s early films, Swain (1950) and Sorrows (1969), were screened alongside Eniaios III Reel 1, Gilbert & George, and Beavers’s The Suppliant (2010), which he is seen editing in Listening.
Oberhausen’s tradition as a festival of dialectics, championing the thorough intellectual investigation of process, aesthetics, and politics in its post-screening discussions and Podium program, was taken to a new level this year with the initiation of the Oberhausen Seminar. Led by scholar and curator Federico Windhausen and co-presented by LUX and The Flaherty Film Seminar, the group of 31 participants, including graduate students, artists, and curators, met for daily sessions in which they partook in roundtable discussions and engaged with visiting speakers, including David Dinnell, program director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, filmmakers such as Mounira al Solh and Kevin Jerome Everson, and Hilke Doering, head of Oberhausen’s International Competition. The Seminar is a forum for exchange, inquiry, and debate, and culminated in the public Podium event, in which they presented key questions and reflections on the theme and Profile programs that arose over the week. Now in its 60th year, the festival continues to reinvent its form by taking on this substantial new addition. With its intimate and in-depth approach to presenting short films, Oberhausen holds a unique place in the festival landscape.