Oberhausen 2009

By Adam Pugh

bernadette-duncan-campbell.jpgBernadette, 2008  

Oberhausen is a curious place; not a destination which stirs the heart. It’s a town of stained concrete and stout old ladies smoking, of fat men with small dogs, of bocks and sausages; an outsider’s imagined Germany. It’s perhaps the staggering contrast between this backdrop (the city has the largest shopping mall in Europe, which has left the old town bereft and bloodless in favour of tree-lined avenues of Pizza Huts and Frankie & Benny’s – and it’s proud of it!) and the conceptually-driven, ambitious, world-leading film festival which emerges there each year which makes the experience of attending it even more valuable. It’s the feeling that the festival must be good, because it’s not as if any yacht trips or beachside cocktails have bribed you into believing it – and the concrete and chain-smokers aren’t without their charms, in any case.

The festival’s programme always includes several meticulously-researched, comprehensive retrospectives under its Profile strand. For 2009, the festival focused on Japanese artist Matsumoto Toshio; Mexican documentarist Nicolás Echevarría; the Sarajevo Documentary School; German actor, director and filmmaker Herbert Fritsch; and the St.Petersburg-based artists’ group Factory of Found Clothes.

The Matsumoto Toshio retrospective started promisingly with Nishijin, a lyrical exploration of a kimono-producing community defined by work, the rhythm of the loom and its shining threads a formal Unfortunately, it was let down, I felt, by programming which saw such early expressive work vie with Toshio’s Pop-ish experiments Metastasis: Shinchintaisha, a psychotropic encounter with a toilet pan, and Mona Lisa, a similarly lurid and, with the benefit of technological hindsight, beserk computer-aided take on da Vinci. Such works were undoubtedly of some importance as historical documents in the development of Toshio’s work, but detracted, I thought, from his more considered films, some of which were compelling. In particular, Ishi no uta (which, as with Nishijin, focused on work) managed to shadow the repetition and percussion of the quarry-workers’ hewing and chiselling with an understated but compelling technique which saw movement approximated by moving between high-contrast photographs at speed. AMPO joyaku, too, documented with energy the angry rejection of the US-Japan peace treaty, the frame at times oozing a dark liquid which could only be blood; the spectre of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ever-present. It is these experiments with form, movement and gesture, and, importantly, Toshio’s clarity of political and social purpose which I found exciting.

speech-bubble-adam-leech.jpgSpeech Bubble,  2008

Nicolás Echevarría’s films proved an interesting counterpoint to those of Matsumoto Toshio, exploring territory which, while seemingly the polar opposite from Toshio’s studies of work and society in terms of subject material, shared a certain anthropological line of enquiry. Echevarría’s work was, nevertheless, altogether more relaxed, and the remarkable document of the Peyote Indians’ pilgrimage, Hikuri-Tame: la casa del Peyote-Venado a particular highlight. Steeped in an animistic association with the ground, the sky, animals and, of course, the cactus, the film was earthy and tangible in a way which transcended its ostensible ‘documentary’ status, and elevated it beyond any academic ethnographic study – something which was no doubt effected by Echevarría’s obvious immersion in, rather than mere recording of, the Peyote Indians’ culture.

The festival’s comprehensive thematic programmes, this year examining identity, aesthetics and politics in Asian moving image under the title Unreal Asia, collated both historical documents and contemporary works. I only managed to catch one programme, and, whilst it’s unfair to judge the entire strand on the strength of but one of its constituent parts, was pretty hard work. Not, thankfully, quite as hard as 2007’s hardcore conceptualist romp Kinomuseum, but tough nevertheless. And that seemed to be the word on the street from people who’d sat through more programmes – but of course it's possible that, couched as most of us are in a Western cinema and a Western mode of watching and consuming the moving image, even at an international film festival it could still have been a problem of cultural relevance, or cultural blindness.

silverleaf-adam-leech.jpgSilverleaf, 2007

Elsewhere at the festival, the monolithic international competition, which showed no signs of having diminished in volume was, as is the wont of most film competitions, a mixed bag. Of the programmes I attended, there were a few films which stood out for me. Ezra Johnson’s The Time of Tall Statues was fresh and intelligent, and whilst not derivative in the slightest, chimed well with Martha Colburn’s work in style and theme. Bernadette (Duncan Campbell, which rightly won the ARTE and FIPRESCI prizes), which I should have seen before but hadn’t, was superb; as was Jim Trainor’s The Presentation Theme, despite being my second viewing. The rationale for which films were awarded prizes, when I saw the list afterwards, was unfathomable, but that’s also usually the case, and not attributable to the festival itself, of course.

In the German competition, I enjoyed Ute Aurand’s three-part A Walk/Im Park/Zuoz and Milena Gierke’s Muralla Roja, a study of architect Ricardo Bofill’s housing estate in Calpe which seemed at the same time to transcend being merely a ‘study’ and felt intrinsically attached to its subject. And at the distributors’ screenings, I was most impressed with Adam Leech’s Silver Leaf (Argos), Olivier Fouchard’s La Granier, Paysages, Etude No.1 and Daïchi Saïto’s Trees of Syntax, Leaves of Axis (both Lightcone).

bernadette-duncan-campbell-2.jpgBernadette, 2008

As always, the festival’s hospitality was fantastic and facilities first-class. The ‘festival space’ where lunch and dinner are available and late-night events are held, is great in particular: I’m impressed and grateful in equal measure that the festival has managed to retain a hub which feels human rather than fall prey to the plastic charms of the ‘networking venue’. And I think this works as a way of understanding the festival as a whole: it is prey to (perhaps even courts) contradictions; has a certain academic formality; and a competition which needs trimming – but in order to remain relevant, it has to take risks, and therefore risk not always getting it right. It’s braver than playing it safe, and overall, it’s a remarkable institution. Remarkable that it allows contradictions to exist at all; remarkable that it advocates (and gets away with advocating) a sense of experimentation; remarkable that it manages to still seem fresh after 55 years.

Adam Pugh is Director of Norwich's Aurora festival, the 2009 edition of which will take place from 13-15 November. Visit www.aurora.org.uk