"It’s Alive! It’s Alive!"
International Short Film Festival Oberhausen 2020
In a live-streamed opening ceremony speech delivered near the locked doors of the Lichtburg-Filmpalast, Oberhausen’s Lord Mayor Daniel Schranz said of Europe’s oldest short film festival: “It’s alive! It’s alive!” Between May 13 and 18, the 66th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen screened 350 films online, roughly two-thirds of the 550 films originally selected for its in-person edition, in light of regulations surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Owing to this public health catastrophe and ever-increasing political uncertainty, the Lord Mayor’s Frankenstein invocation reflected the state of affairs a little too well.
It’s no small feat to restore a festival online, where anyone in the world could attend for less than the cost of, say, a month of HBO Max (the festival pass was 9.99), all while preserving most of its lineup and pledged endowments, prizes, and exposure to its participating artists. Nevertheless, this year emphasized certain aspects to the exclusion of others. The retrofitted festival permitted users to pick-and-choose films within a given programming block, raising questions around intent and curation, and its programs’ 48-hour availability windows imposed such a needless sense of urgency that a charge of users crashed the festival’s servers on opening night. Despite the increased sense of dislocation, Oberhausen’s indisputable global sprawl and breathless open-mindedness to diverse artistic styles and concerns—from children’s and artist’s films to music videos and web series—remained a useful reminder of its durable status as one of the most important festivals of its kind.
One such example was the unpronounceable ( ( ( ( ( /*\ ) ) ) ) ) (alternately titled as Ecos del volcán) by Charles Fairbanks and Saúl Kak, an unfussy but meticulously observed portrait of the Zoque diaspora that opened the International Competition section. Recorded in Mexico between 2012 and 2018, the documentary surveys the geography of the indigenous Zoque’s Chiapas village and their relationship to the 1982 Chichonal volcano eruption that forced their present-day displacement. Unhurried outdoor camera work, candidly heard public announcements—loudspeakers broadcasting everything from advertisements and church services to political speeches, protests, and breaking news—and astute juxtaposition with archival news footage from ’82 provide a quietly angry comment on structural reforms impressed on them by nature and, more recently, the state. The latter comes through especially clear in a loudspeaker announcement decrying the former presidential administration’s concessions of natural gas energy and mineral rights on their ancestral land. The film sharpens our senses to the communication breakdown between government and oppressed community, but also attends to the tensions between artist and subject. As in their feature-length The Modern Jungle, Fairbanks and Kak (himself a Zoque artist and activist) casually insert themselves into the work, subtly breaking its continuity. “We are here to make a film so that people can see it,” Kak says, in Zoque, to a group of children, who ask him where the video will go: “On the internet?” Where the collective voice is relegated to a town PA system scarcely heard from outside the town, the question resonates with subtle precision. ( ( ( ( /*\ ) ) ) ) ) records the struggle of speaking and being heard, and prompts us to reflect deeply on the Zoque community, the painful condition of refugees everywhere, the viability of progress and where cinema and the state may fit into all of this. Perhaps most of all, it pragmatically reminds us of technology’s role, and its revolutionary potential.
In Ana Vaz’s Apiyemiyekî? (presented by Berlin’s Arsenal—Institute for Film and Video Art), oppression and activism are considered with similar assurance, but here Vaz uses an assemblage of archival and original material, over-exposures, superimpositions and solarization to create a shattering indictment of the period it recalls. The film starts with Brazilian educator and indigenous rights activist Egydio Schwade's archive, Casa da Cultura de Urubuí. The archive holds thousands of drawings made by the Brazilian Amazon indigenous Waimiri-Atroari, who were systematically attacked by Brazil’s military dictatorship after refusing to relocate for the federal BR-174 highway construction. Schwade compiled these drawings while teaching the Waimiri-Atroari in a literacy program. Accompanied by his recollections, drawings of guns, blood, and chainsawed trees appear on screen, sometimes superimposed on present-day footage (notably of the Amazon River), and become the most integral components of the film. Vaz’s sophisticated visual arrangement creates a non-chronological continuity, revealing insights that cannot be verbally expressed by Schwade (who barely appears on screen), and penetratingly considers the pedagogical and aesthetic tendencies permitted by the state, then and now.
Mark Jenkin’s archly gothic Hard, Cracked the Wind relishes in genre in order to resurrect the past, namely his native Cornwall’s endangered language. In it, an aspiring Cornish-revivalist poet buys an antique writing case engraved with her own initials, and finds inside a haunted unfinished poem and the ghost of its previous owner who coerces her to finish it—but all signs point to a cursed fate. As in his last feature, Bait (2019), Jenkin makes ample use of scratchy, hand-processed black-and-white photography and post-sync sound to conjure an atmosphere and time out of joint. The film practically takes the form of a message received decades after transmission, which heightens certain images—like a masked man reciting Cornish poetry from a smartphone—into sight gags. More than that, it expresses a jittery uncertainty toward the olden days, the dead, and the living who are not simply doomed to repeat history, but destined to emerge worse for wear after each cycle.
Aquí y allá from the Argentine-born, France-based filmmaker Melisa Liebenthal approaches a similar tension between history and its own authoritativeness from the angle of Google Earth’s consumer-friendly geo-technology, and infuses her interior travelogue with playful imagination and deadpan. In what first appears as a computer screen film, with Liebenthal virtually touring the various places she’s lived, an impressive invisible cut shifts the film into the material world whereupon pixels become laser-cut squares that scatter across the director’s work space, itself covered with print-outs of maps and family photographs. From there she traces her family’s transnational migratory history, which extends to Nazi Germany and Maoist China, to better understand where she belongs. But Liebenthal is equally interested in challenging the precision of the tools that get her there—these seemingly traceable, objectified measures that just as easily enable imagination, fantasy, and storytelling. What impresses and delights, among other things, is Liebenthal’s resolve to use them anyway.
World premiering in the German Competition, Sylvia Schedelbauer’s Labor of Love interprets something more abstract—the slippery definition of love—with an endless variety of changing shapes, patterns, and colors. Stroboscopic flickering and ombré effects interrupt HD video and 16mm found footage, endlessly collapsing into patterns that create entirely new images. Though we may register specific objects in Labor of Love (a brain, a moth, root tips of a tree), its total result is a gentle barrage of strong sensory impressions nothing short of hypnotic. If love is here, as the filmmaker’s voiceover suggests early on, it’s an endlessly reflecting and refracting feeling—a warm familiarity that gives way to unexpected but embraceable ideas.
Another impressive world premiere in the International Competition, Toronto-based filmmaker Chris Kennedy’s equally kinetic three and a half minute The Initiation Well spins and oscillates 16mm black-and-white imagery of Portugal’s Quinta da Regaleira, an early 20th century estate, plunging us into the grainy textures of one of its devouring initiation wells and heightening our appreciation of architecture as a visionary, vertigo-inducing experience. Without explanation or analysis, Kennedy follows cellphone-wielding tourists down its winding staircase with pendulous whip pans that flatten and confuse still with moving images, as its synthesized sound design—a bit like the soothing yet nerve-jangling effects of a glass harp building chords—adds to a sense of perpetual motion and creeped-out wonder to the rituals that once transpired there.
Speaking of Portugal: a few non-competition programs survived Oberhausen’s online transition, including the festival’s first ever “Country Focus” section, a standout among the sidebars, which traced the last decade of Portugal’s short film production history with more than a dozen works. Curated by IndieLisboa’s director Miguel Valverde, the three-part “Ten Years of an Exploratory Cinema,” screened across the festival and consisted of films configuring anxiety, ambiguity, and tension—a world-weariness whose root cause may be observable but nonetheless beyond control. Humor and irony were certainly there—a few films are downright funny—but taken together the works imploringly presented flares in the sky: representations of terror and limited hope, allegories of inevitable corruption or extinction, warnings of societies in decline, and rare indications of love.
Among the films screened in the first program, “Future is Present,” was Joana Pimenta’s An Aviation Field (2016). Produced by João Matos of Terratreme Filmes (the Portuguese film collective behind films like The Nothing Factory  and Milla ), Pimenta’s mysterious short traverses South America and Africa, combining dioramic schemes of Brazil’s utopian experiment, Brasília, with footage of two barely-discernible people as they haul torches down the enormous active volcano of Cape Verde’s Pico do Fogo. Intermittently employing low-pitched, crackling sounds along with limited narration, Pimenta heightens the hypnotic power of the ominous visuals—those of Pico do Fogo’s intimidating scale and the miniature, and digital models of Brasília’s imagined future—into an approximation of Portugal’s colonialist footprint and the true foreignness of nature. In the same program, Jorge Jácome’s Past Perfect (2019) spans millennia—starting in 2018 and working backwards to the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event—to pinpoint “a better time” in history by way of a muted dialogue. Differentiating speakers only by their respective yellow and white captions, this unheard conversation strains toward silence but otherwise abounds with music and foggy, kaleidoscopic visuals of a crying palm tree, a fidget-spinner preserved in ice, a cassette tape containing the unofficial ISIS anthem bobbing in a stream. Despite its playful epoch hopping, a sad-toned heaviness informs the film. Unable to reach a conclusion that can be verbally expressed, the film ironically finds its peace in the world’s most violent event—mass extinction—and the sweet lethality of nostalgia.
The lone shot-on-celluloid program, “Strange is Fine,” adopts a similar case against the spoken word as it relates to genre exercises from Ico Costa, Patrick Mendes, and Paulo Abreu. Produced while a student at France’s Le Fresnoy, Costa’s 16mm-shot Four Hours Barefoot (2012) takes on a ripped-from-the-headlines story concerning a teenage country boy who kills his father in the small hours of morning. (Costa makes use of a similar premise for his most recent feature, Alva .) Afterwards he hikes across Portugal’s mountains for four hours, wearing only a bluish plaid button-down and denim jeans, to eventually confess his crime. While the film’s narrative is as straightforward as its title, its subtle play of natural light to mark hours and miles within minutes protracts a simple action like walking into an atmospheric exploration of wandering into the greatest form of punishment.
Another dehydrated, half-dead-looking protagonist collapses in the junkyard setting of Mendes’s The Estate of the Dead (2013). After a plump mechanic lures him in with a spit-roasted pig and freshly drilled groundwater, she knocks him unconscious and traps him in a freight container (and he doesn’t seem to be her first victim). Something like George Romero by way of John Waters, Mendes’s macabrely funny short resurrects the zombie trope to portend a working class that resembles the so-called walking dead, forever trapped in a will-less cycle of desperation and violence.
Abreu’s black-and-white Super 8mm-shot Barba (2011) uses early cinema aesthetics to similarly allegorize Portugal’s 2011 economic crisis and subsequent bailout via prehistoric dolmen-worshippers who discover a telescope—carved from bone, though it looks more like an empty toilet paper roll—which reframes their sense of reality and eventually sparks rock-hurling mutiny. The Estate of the Dead and Barba might not reach seriously profound conclusions but their shaggy slapstick gags create their own rebellious, absurdist impact.
Valverde rounded out the design of the final program “All About Us” with a pair of films by João Rui Guerra da Mata and João Pedro Rodrigues. The exquisitely staged chamber piece As the Flames Rose (2012) by Guerra da Mata stars a lone Rodrigues, whose autobiographical complement Where Do You Stand Now, João Pedro Rodrigues? (2016), commissioned by the Centre Pompidou as a part of their retrospective of the filmmaker’s work, forms a lyrical self portrait of home movies and solitary wanderings, memories of his partnership with Guerra da Mata, and the influences that helped shape his voice. Guerra da Mata and Rodrigues’s collaborative relationship, inspirational in its own right, forms an auspicious connection to the program’s young up-and-comers Leonor Teles, whose fable-doc Batrachian’s Ballad (2016) turns a record of vandalism into a punk act of aggression toward xenophobia in a so-called new Portugal; and David Pinheiro Vicente with Where the Summer Goes (Chapters on Youth) (2018)—a refreshing confluence of Gen Z pleasantries, frank eroticism, and a subtlety of composition and unusual Catholic imagination. In the context of Oberhausen, who made their own creative pivot in a public health crisis, there is a general sense of optimism to take away with the finality of this program and the last words it offers to a new generational talent’s intelligence, effervescence, and daring.