ALTERNATIVE REALITY: The diffident return to key questions by the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen.
Invasion | The Separate System | Where there is fire, there is smoke
Country: South African | UK | Germany

The term “experimental documentary” indicates a certain hesitation, if not doubt, about the concept of reality. How can reality itself be captured and represented? What are the right structures, concepts and patterns to exhibit reality? The term “documentary” refers to a “real” event, which is examined. So in one sense, “experimental documentary” questions our traditionally accepted patterns of reality, presented in logical, homogenous and narrative structures, which are able to capture and represent a reality. In another sense, the experimental documentary can be seen as an illusion, a suggestion and, in the best of cases, a diminution, directed by simplified intentions.

How can documentaries deal with events that, for example, were never officially documented either in writing or with audiovisual aids? Is this the limit of true representation?

Experimental narratives. South African filmmaker Simon Gush defies such a limitation in his work Invasion. His film re-enacts eyewitness statements in a simple and understated fashion: Actors sit on a chair in an empty, uncomfortable room, and read the accounts of those who wish to remain anonymous. An image of a landscape surrounding an artificial lake is shown on-screen. The landscape itself is insignificant, and difficult to locate. The texts speak of a South African military attack against a water resort in Lesotho, the small, land-locked kingdom surrounded by South Africa on all sides. The lake in question is the result of a contract, signed 12 years prior, between representatives of both South Africa and Lesotho – and voted on in dubious circumstances. The population of Lesotho did not want to lose their water resource to a South African industry complex. Their peaceful resistance was answered with brutal armed attacks. In comparison with other “world news” events, however, this was considered marginal.

Invasion by Simon Gush

“How can documentaries deal with events that were never officially documented?”

Insisting on telling this specific story is in itself somewhat “experimental”, proving the limits of sensitivity in an international public that’s already overwhelmed by violence and daily atrocities. By insisting on a detail, marginality is brought into question.

Reconstructing reality. The experimental reconstruction of reality could be composed by just a set of sensations and dispersed details avoiding any forced suggestions. The focus may simply be reduced to nameless voices telling their stories, beyond the delivery of specific details such as times and places.

In The Separate System, British filmmaker Katie Davies demonstrates one example of this approach. Her camera only shows specific details – like the eyes of a speaker, their notes on paper, or simple house structures, parking spots and advertisements. An empty living space is established, and it is this emptiness that becomes the main focal point of the narrative. Davies offers a space to prisoners – most of them veterans – who struggle to find their way back into civilian society. Too many years were spent in an environment where violence was stimulated and constantly practiced. Ill prepared for any kind of job or working capacity and with few personal belongings, they find themselves isolated and often mistrusted. Confronted with such frustrating situations, the occurrence of a violent outbreak is often just a question of time for some of these individuals. As such, a return to prison might be regarded as a homecoming; at least inside the prison walls they have some sort of daily structure and obligations to meet.

The Separate System by Katie Davies, 2017, HD still

Davies invites the prisoners to realise the final cut themselves. This, too, is an experimental act: giving away control over one’s own film and work. One of the prisoners describes his previous military experience as training to be a killing machine; another just remembers that the loss of personal belongings is, in itself, a destruction of identity, that’s “what people do to people”. Meanwhile, the industrial aspect of a prison should not be forgotten: Prisoners have to work, and they prefer to do so, for a ridiculous salary of £1.80 per day. Other veteran prisoners articulate their discomfort to speak about their “war experiences”. The difference between the battlefields and field camps on the one hand and “normality” and civilian life on the other is too harsh. Their wish to remain silent often leads to isolation.

Fabricated facts. Another issue is that experimental documentary may open up to the fabrication of realities. In Where there is fire, there is smoke, Volker Köster from Germany refers to recently broadcast images in the French news, of demonstrations – which erupted just a few days before the European football championship in France – against the new labour laws. Virtually every national and international media outlet showed the footage of a violent attack against a police car. Mainstream journalists routinely referred to the incident, and it was used as the basis of a statement by the police department, confirming that two policemen were violently taken out of their burning car, after an inflammable object was thrown inside. This “murderous attack”, as it was quickly dubbed, formed a key element for official statements to stay away from these protests.

“A GENRE OF Experimental documentary may open up to the fabrication of realities.”

However, another version of the event is offered by alternative news outlets and social media: A person who was in the group of attackers is seen giving a subtle sign to start the camera. He then guides the female officer away, and she seems in no way surprised by his gentile manner, after he has carefully knocked on the closed door of the police car in order to get them out. The male agent who was struck by the protesters’ sticks also receives a comforting shoulder pat from this person. Director Köster resumes the confrontation from different perspectives, giving no final conclusion; he simply provides key information about the political use of the “official” version.

Unfortunately, this most important work of analytical media criticism and reality decomposition is only found in the NRW section of Oberhausen’s festival, which is the section for regional German contributions (NRW is short for North Rhine-Westphalia, the home state of the festival). You will not find a political film of this calibre in the main sections of the festival programme.

The overwhelming exclusion of social and cultural realities in the previous Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen has recently met with criticism, which in turn seems to have been fruitful. The festival appears to have returned, partially, to its own historical traces: During the cold war, it was at times a political opening to East European and Baltic territories including Russia, and later an important showcase for politically engaged filmmakers worldwide.

However, the presence of art scene curators and the gallery system are currently dominating the festival throughout its film programmes.