Unbearable Lightness of a Moment: Impressions from Oberhausen and Beyond

By Tereza Stehlíková


Despite the chattering voices of the protagonists, the scene contains silence, which allows space for one’s own contemplation. The atmosphere is that of late spring, the air ripe with the mysterious presence of dormant futures. Although only captured as a fragment, this playground scene contains an inner logic, which reveals its own meaning or truth, a truth which governs the movement of the children, is audible in the tone of their voices, shines in the attentive look of their faces as they play within the lived-in landscape of their childhood days. It can be perceived in the way the sunlight falls on their hair, in the length of shadows cast by trees, the marks of time scratched into the bench on which at this moment two people sit, the silent observers through whose eyes we see…

Life gathers its weight in meaning. This meaning is mysterious and not always accessible to the rational mind. Often its outline can be glimpsed in brief passing moments, for they are the perceived points of focus from which life is composed and, just as each one is a part of a greater whole, it also, in the manner of a hologram, contains the outline of the complete structure.

Attention points out moments and lifts them out of the semi-darkness of forgetting. It is a struggle to sustain such called-for concentration along the path of one’s life, distracted by so much noise and movement. This bright torch of attention more often than not wavers and scatters its light into tiny prisms so that, rather than a continuous stream, life appears to be composed of these moments, those illuminated scenes along a way through twilight.

The weight of life and these moments must be acknowledged and respected and an attempt made to understand their meaning on the most universal level, as well as on the very personal, subjective front. One path towards such understanding is through art and the new ways of perception which art can offer.

We came to Oberhausen to see some of the films in its famous short film festival… We are here to be inspired in the context of a shared experience, to get away from the constant grinding of a large city with all its distractions, to perceive the world through the acute eyes of various established or emerging filmmakers, secretly hoping to encounter a film that will transform our understanding of the world, however slightly or temporarily. We long for a vision which will at once surprise us in its uniqueness while at the same time offering recognition of an undeniable poetic truth, the truth that governs our lives and threads through our most conscious actions, creating a pattern of meaning which only those with a keen attention are able to observe and point out.

Film as a time-based medium seems to offer a direct parallel to the narrative of life. As it cannot tell each story in real time (or if it does, in ways still limited by length) it inevitably works with moments. Film knows the value of moments: a moment can make it or break it. This is why film must strive to reflect the weight of life, for its own sake as well as the audience’s, because to see a film means to exchange one’s direct experience of life for a representation.

In return for the privilege of seeing through the filmmaker’s eye, we are paying with real time.

In our contemporary western world the moment is denied its weight. It is hurried, overlooked, sliced mercilessly into harsh units of time with no respect for its natural borders. It is pushed around, over-filled with the noise of distorted sound, image and word. Much harm is done in a moment, for it is considered so fleeting that it carries no importance, and much of this harm is easily excused for it is gone before we fully realise its weight. Our disrespect for the moment becomes an expression of the disrespect for life and art struggles to defy this tendency.

Are we still able to appreciate the true weight of a moment and what it means for our lives?

In his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera speaks of the idea of eternal reoccurrence, where moments are repeated into eternity, and therefore there is no escape from one’s actions, which cannot be hidden behind the veil of nostalgia or excused by their passing. If every moment lasts in eternity, its weight becomes almost unbearable. It may seem terrifying at first yet, as Kundera considers, “the heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more truthful and real they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are significant.”

Inside the darkened space that is the auditorium of the Oberhausen cinema, the screening has begun. Soon we are drifting through times, the world only a distant memory of firm ground under our feet. All around us, a storm of images and sounds is raging on, while our attention struggles to find a stable point of focus.


As the various stories presented unwind, an avoidance of real enquiry into the value of moments and life in general seems apparent. Some filmmakers attempt to gain artificial weight for their creations by misguided references to well known work without adding anything new at all, while others put themselves in front of the camera in the disguise of a persona as removed from their real self as the figure of Stalin might be. Certain films use beautiful imagery in an attempt to seduce, and others linger for what seems like eternity on moments that lack weight or any inner logic to justify the time spent. Whichever way, the majority of the films we watch are only circling tangible reality, terrified of grasping the matter of (or what matters in) life, as if in doubt of their own significance. As the poet W.H. Auden puts it, “we would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and see ourselves.” Those few who do not shrink from the weight of such a challenge shock us by their simple courage to stand naked without the veil of irony.

When the screening is finished we stumble out into the street and walk along one of the quiet streets of the town, keen to feel the reassurance of solid ground. We pass semi-abandoned shops, where clothes hang like the outlines of ghosts, a deserted primary school with its glass entrance revealing to us the emptiness behind its walls, while all along an echo of the town’s silence infuses our thoughts and brings with it a much needed space for reflection.

We procede alongside a painted wall, where an idyllic scene of hills is depicted, a whole imaginary land with rivers and bridges and animals grazing in the green grass. In the blue sky a red balloon is rising. Filled with a substance lighter than air the vessel defies gravity. Leaning out of the basket are two small figures gazing into the depth below them. What does it feel like to leave the earth for the first time, to see it from such a height? Must the abstract beauty of such a view always be exchanged for a gnawing doubt of one’s own personal significance? A doubt which cannot be resolved in the skies, but only back in the dirt of the road...

The road which takes us into a small park with a playground in its corner. There are children running around, playing with sand and pumping water from a little wooden pump. It’s early May and the earth is already visibly dry, deep cracks showing themselves like furrows on its lived-in face, the grass bleached by the merciless rays of sun.

We want to sit down for a while, but the nearest bench has a plank of wood missing, and so we walk towards the next one…

A moment can be a simple park bench, where our lives encounter other lives. Here I can feel my life touching yours and those unknown others around us, in the same way that my finger touches the rough wood just before we sit down.

How many times have people sat on a park bench in early May, to find solitude, gather their thought and watch children play their eternal childhood games? Whether this moment is mine or yours makes no difference. It will be re-enacted thousands of times by thousands of people, captured thousands of times on camera. This is eternal reoccurrence and it is our responsibility to make each moment count, be it on film or in life itself.

Images by Tereza Stehlíková.

Tereza Stehlíková is an artist based in London.