Local Heroes

By Mike Sperlinger


Versions of engagement at Oberhausen Film Festival

The teenager trying to be sick into the modest municipal fountain made me think of the words of the mayor: “for a few days the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen is once more going to dominate the cultural life in our city.” Oberhausen has two claims to fame: firstly, it hosts the second largest out-of-town shopping centre in Europe; while secondly, this small German city has, somewhat incongruously, hosted a vibrant, politicised short film festival for the best part of half a century. According to the mayor, writing in the festival catalogue, 79% of local attendees at the 2002 edition of the festival “said they were ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with the festival programme”. On the next page however, there were different horizons: the Minister of Urban Development and Housing, Culture and Sport for North Rhine-Westphalia feared “that the Iraq war will still be going on when the 49th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen takes place.”


Such clashes of register were very much on the agenda at Oberhausen in May. Every year, the festival runs a ‘special programme’, a themed strand which includes historical work, alongside the main competition selections. For 2003, the programme organisers – Lars Henrik Gass, Bady Minck and Katrin Mundt – devised the theme of ‘reization’: ostensibly, an umbrella concept for the nine international curators to work with ideas ranging from “showing one’s own roots” to “communicating something that does not want to be communicated”. In practice, the programme was a running jump at the issues of globalisation and its limits, much in the spirit of last year’s Documenta_11 art fair in Kassel.

The political framing of the reization programme was thrown into sharper relief, however, by the festival’s decision, due to the Iraq war, “not to tolerate the presence of any official representatives of the Aznar, Berlusconi, Blair and Bush administrations at our festival”. What was a token gesture (banning ambassadors who would never have been attending in the first place) blew up into a full-scale row in the German press about cultural embargoes, and resulted in one of the festival sponsors, the satellite station 3sat, threatening to withdraw (there was eventually a compromise to hold a panel about the issues on the opening night instead). With reization committed to “exploring what is close or reflecting what is remote,” it soon became impossible to disentangle the special programme from the context of the festival as a whole, from the city of Oberhausen, from regional, national and international politics – the frame of those incursionist parentheses in the title was constantly slipping. The war on the news, the boy at the fountain, or the festival’s invisible band of translators – all, at one moment or another, seemed to be as much the subject of the programme as the films themselves.

Who Hangs the Laundry? Washing, War and Electricity in Beirut
, 2001

In fact, what were putatively side issues seemed to play out more tellingly many of the themes which reization aimed to address, than some of the programmes themselves. Within these, certainly, there were striking films. Perhaps most extraordinary were the video clips Tobias Wendl used to illustrate his lecture on contemporary Nigerian and Ghanian horror films: as a man turned into a snake, had sex with a woman and then collected money as it came out of her mouth, lo-fi video effects threatened to become the syntax of a wholly new kind of social realism. In Catherine David’s programme Middle East: Many Stories, Omar Amiralay’s There are So Many Things Still to Be Told was a furious but understated account of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as told by and through playwright Saadallah Wannous, a month before he died. And, in total contrast, Seifollah Samadian’s Tehran, The 25th Hour, part of Mark Nash’s Experiments with Truth, played very precisely on its (Western) audience’s preconceptions of Iran, as it portrayed a distinctly secular collective ecstasy in a gridlocked Tehran as Iran qualified for the 1998 World Cup.

Too often, however, the programmes as a whole were leadenly thematic or literal. Bady Minck, who contributed six of the programmes (all the other curators had only one), seemed to apply the same daisy-chain logic to each: one film remorselessly related to the next, so that their distinctive traits vanished. Fine films by David Rimmer, Takahsi Ito, Karpo Godina, Amar Kanwar, Gary Beydler, Marie Menken and others were thus reduced to tautologies. By contrast, other programmes risked, in their anodyne variety, the formula of ‘around the world in eighty minutes,’ and at these moments, reization resembled the worst aspects of Documenta_11: token regionalism fortified with theoretical big guns.

At least two of the programmes did escape these traps. Madeleine Bernstorff’s programme War: Local Traces explored the idea of film-as-testimony, drawing on works (mostly documentary-based) which confront the beginnings and aftermath of conflict. In Who Hangs the Laundry? Washing, War and Electricity in Beirut, Hrafnhildur Gunnarsdóttir follows the daily routine of Lebanese activist Tina Naccahe, washing her clothes with reused water, coping with a power cut, her politics refracted through the pockmarked architecture and non-existent infrastructure of her city. The geopolitics are played out entirely in microcosm: hanging her clothes out to dry on a high-rise balcony, Naccahe reflects on the illegal Asian immigrants who work as domestics for the Lebanese middle-class, glimpsed at work in the flats opposite her own. Book-ending the programme were Juan Manuel Echavarria’s Two Brothers, in which the two subjects sing their stories of escaping from Colombian paramilitaries, their faces filling the screen in turn; and John Smith’s Frozen War, where the face is that of a BBC newscaster, frozen, due to a transmission glitch, on a hotel television screen in the middle of a report entitled ‘Strike on Afghanistan’.

Meanwhile, London-based curator Ian White’s programme Today We Live was perhaps the most radical engagement with the reization brief. Three contemporary British-based artists were interspersed with two interwar documentaries about self-built community centres, directed by Ruby Grierson. Her two films shared some of the same footage but, shown complete next to one another, their reworkings of the material became a kind of antidote to the rhythms of modish ‘found-footage’ and set the stage for the complex ideas of community with which the other three films engaged. Jimmy Robert’s super-8 film Chartham Court, shown on 16mm, is an impossibly fragile document of a day in and around a Brixton estate, offering faces and places, the shadows of the stairwell and the smoking of a cigarette. Emma Hedditch’s Raising a Resister explores footage from the Lambeth Women’s Project, to pose the question of resistance and community at the level of the most evanescent feeling, a passing paranoia or a discarded intuition. Melissa Castagnetto’s Archive Project is a kind of practical, collective memory: extracts from her grandmother’s standard-8 home movies are shown alongside a video, in which the process of showing the footage to other people (friends, collaborators) and their comments on the footage are the archive itself.

As a slightly fractious panel discussion between all the curators finally suggested, the missing link in reization was perhaps a more transparent account of curation itself – a cultural form whose current hypertrophy is linked directly to the globalisation of the art market – and the current difficulties of determining contexts in a field characterised by the fetishization of idioms, ‘local’ or otherwise. But if the idealism apparent in the organisers’ original outline was only realised in flashes, the conceptual ambition and undisguised political bent of the series, in the context of a commercially-sponsored short film festival, remained exemplary – and hard to imagine in a UK context.

Mike Sperlinger is a freelance critic and also works for LUX.