Short Film Symposium at Cork Film Festival

By George Clark

dead-weight-of-a-quarrel-hangs.jpgThe Dead Weight of a Quarrel Hangs, 1996-99

 “When I hear the words short film I wonder, short of what?” – Mike Hoolboom

Prompted by its 50th anniversary, the Cork International Film Festival held a symposium on the state of the short film last October. As with many such events the most telling elements were what was not said, as much as what was. The most apparent struggle was the difficulty in establishing common ground when talking about the short film. The various misunderstandings and gaps in discussions that arose illuminate the central difficulty in talking about a form, as Mike Hoolboom points out, which is permanently rendered in the negative. Many people alluded to experimental cinema, short narratives, pop promos, portmanteau films, documentaries, etc... without really tackling how these areas relate or how one could extract a criteria for a form characterised by its duration and its marginality in cinematic exhibition.

One of the most enduring and quietly provocative propositions about how we understand and talk about these abbreviated forms was the screening of Walid Raad’s The Dead Weight of a Quarrel Hangs (1998, 18min). The video was presented, by former Oberhausen director Angela Haardt as ‘an example [of] recontextualized images.’ In the work Raad presents various images allegedly created during the Lebanese civil wars (1975-91).

The video’s everyday images are obliquely related by commentary, chapters and inter-titles to Lebanese society at that time. The video’s fake source material left many attendees unsure of what they were seeing – its strangeness of course is part of its project. Similar to Raad’s activities as the Atlas Group, a fictional artists’ collective, this work is about questioning received information just as much as proposing that history is written in fragments not clear sentences.

The proposal from Haardt and Raad is that images lead to other images and that their meanings emerge from their contexts. In the world of short films this is especially true as rarely are these works seen in isolation. Predominately they are experienced as a collective form, a programme of works, fragments as opposed to the singularity of a feature film. Within this inherent quality lies one of the strengths and excitement of the short film; it is a malleable medium open to re-contextualisation and renewal in a way that features films frustrate. In many ways the programme of works precedes all cinema, an art that emerged from variety shows at circuses and carnivals. Those first films were not considered short, in the same way that they were not considered to be silent, until other forms existed.

The need for context and an argument behind what work is shown is becoming increasingly important. In recent years festivals have recorded a huge rise in the amount of submitted works. The International Short Film Festival at Oberhausen in Germany now annually receives around 4000 works a year and is able to screen less than 100 in their competition. In order to deal with this huge amount of work the role of festivals, programmers and curators needs to be developed. Objective coverage of this much work is impossible. Festivals have to take a stand now more than ever, to define or seek to define what it is they stand for, to define their perspective on contemporary practice.

A central thread of the symposium and its future outcome is to develop a canon of ‘great shorts’. This was inspired in part by Jonathan Rosenbaum’s recent book Essential Cinema: on The Necessity of Canons (2004). In his opening address Rosenbaum proposed 10 works and discussed what he sees as the necessity and unavoidability of canons. His argument focused on the way canons are ingrained in film culture whether we like it or not, through the now ubiquitous box office tallies and award ceremonies like the Oscars. His proposal linked to his belief in the role of the critic and programmer to broaden and expand the circulation of works and debate.

His provocative proposal, matched by a wonderfully eclectic list of works, was debated and dismissed throughout the three days. A fascinating outcome of these discussions was the way a shared canon naturally emerged, often from the people who strongly objected to the idea. The subject most often reiterated was the ‘history’ of experimental cinema, alluded to without challenge throughout. This dominantly European and American history links the innovative work in Europe in the ’20s and ’30s (Soviet Montage, French Surrealism and German Expressionism) to America in the ’40s and ’50s with the blossoming of lyrical and mythopoetic film (Deren, Anger, Brakhage, et al), the following movements in the ’60s and ’70s (Underground film, Structuralist Film) in America and Europe and the subsequent emergence of Video Art on the international scene.

This unchallenged ‘history’ makes the need for debate around canons all the more clear. Rosenbaum hypothesised that the short film is essential in the same way that very long films are, to break, subvert and question the boundaries drawn around what cinema is or can be. For the short film to develop, to be debated and explored, people need to take their own stance and position. The common group should continue to be unstable.

For more information and updates on the Symposium see

George Clark is a writer and curator based in London. His season Without Boundaries will take place in June at London’s ICA and will explore contemporary Europe through artists’ film and video.