The International Short Film Festival Oberhausen offers an oasis of innovative, experimental and artistic film.
Astra Zoldnere
Zoldnere is a Latvian film director, curator and publicist. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: May 29, 2018

International Short Film Festival Oberhausen is one of the oldest and most prestigious short film festivals in the world. At the festival’s eighth edition, a group of young German filmmakers issued the Oberhausen Manifesto in which they declared the old or so called Papa’s cinema dead and demanded establishment of a new kind of film which would be more experimental and free from the conventions of the industry. The manifesto later lead to the birth of The New German Cinema which is represented by Alexander Kluge, Edgar Reitz, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and many other directors.

This year marked the festivals 64th edition. In its current form Oberhausen is an experimental and art film mecca offering visually innovative shorts, many of which seek to expand the cinematic language. In the feature documentary Beyond Cinema: The Dumpster Kid Experiment and Other Utopias director Alexander Kluge says that the film pioneers were curious people who kept experimenting with the film medium and «were very surprised to find their wonderful invention, their instrument of enlightenment, being used to record cheap stage plays.» Edgar Reitz also criticises the standard film length, asserting that the 90-minute format was borrowed from stage and is foreign to the nature of film.

«Oberhausen is an experimental and art film mecca.»

Commercial model

However, it is the commercial film industry that sets the rules. When I tell people that I work in film, most of them automatically think of full-length, story-driven fiction films. Everything beyond this format, including documentaries, shorts and experimental films, is somehow considered a second-class cinema to which media and viewers pay less attention. British film theoretician Laura Mulvey in her essay from 1975 «Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema» introduced the term male gaze. Meaning that the audience watches a film from a heterosexual male perspective. I think that one can similarly think of the gaze of the commercial film industry, which has strongly coded its perspective.

Beyond Cinema: The Dumpster Kid Experiment and Other Utopias Director: Robert Fischer

Luckily, there are still some substantial players fighting this narrow understanding of cinema, and International Short Film Festival Oberhausen is one of them. Interestingly, many documentaries in this year’s International Competition focused on the act of looking itself.

«The 90-minute format was borrowed from stage and is foreign to the nature of film.»

Woman’s gaze

One could interpret Lynne Sachs’s short documentary Carolee, Barbara and Gunvor as an answer to Laura Mulvey’s criticism on male gaze. Sachs follows three recognised avant-garde female film directors: Carolee Schneemann, Barbara Hammer and Gunvor Nelson and gives them space to talk about their passion for filmmaking and the way they see the world through the camera lens. Sachs has found a unique language for each of the stories to reflect the perspectives of her protagonists. Yet something is still missing in these portraits of the three older artists – courage. Barbara Hammer and Carolee Schneemann are well known for exposing the body and sexuality in their work. Sachs’ film, however, lacks the direct female gaze, which is not afraid of exposing the taboos regarding older women’s bodies. Sachs is much less daring in her film than her protagonists have been in their own works.

Carolee, Barbara and Gunvor Director: Lynne Sachs

Critical gaze

With the use of computer-generated aesthetics Luciano Piazza’s experimental documentary Acedia is an ode to sloth. The film criticises modern society’s infatuation with Benjamin Franklin’s phrase «time is money.» It starts with observations of people in their windows, proposing the idea that in a way we all work for the real estate industry. Another memorable sequence begins with people photographing blooming cherry trees. In the following shot we see a computer screen with «cherry blossom cat» typed into a Google search pane. Various kitschy and absurd pictures of cats in blossoming cherries appear. These images perfectly illustrate our society’s obsession with technology. Various philosophers, including Marshall McLuhan, describe technologies as extensions of the human body. Acedia invites the viewer to reflect on how technologies define who we are, and ends with apocalyptic predictions.

«The dialogue questions the correlation between reality and the image.»

Personal gaze

Mikhail Zheleznikov

Russian filmmaker Mikhail Zheleznikov’s film Kameshki (Pebbles) is a personal declaration of love to images. Since childhood Zheleznikov has been collecting photos of strangers he finds on the street and in other public places. Mostly they are portraits shot for passports or other documents. In the film Zheleznikov names these characters and fantasises about their life path. This playful approach to reality reminds me of the way my cousins and I killed time in childhood. We would choose a stranger in the park and imagine who this person could be: What‘s their profession? Do they have a family? Where are they going?

In one of the last shots of the movie, two men are sitting by the sea and watching the sunset, filming themselves on a computer. One of them says with a strong Russian accent, «Real life is so boring on the video itself, you know.» This is followed by the answer, «What is so real about this?» The dialogue puts the i in ironic, questioning the correlation between reality and the image and continuing the never-ending discussion about the actuality of documentary films.

In everyday life, we are overrun by thousands of images and the boldest ones seem to dominate and influence how most of us see the world. I strongly believe that film education in which different perspectives are presented is as important as literature lessons where one gets to know various forms of written text. The predictable schemes of the dominant film industry are boring. But one needs some foundation to learn how to read more complex and indirect audiovisual texts.