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Old and New: The 60th Oberhausen International Short Film Festival

A Million Miles Away

Nestled in the industrial Ruhr region and dubbed “Germany’s Detroit” due to its distinction as the most debt-ridden city in the country, Oberhausen may not immediately sound like a great place to host an international film festival. Nevertheless, believe it or not, the 2014 Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen marked the festival’s 60th iteration. This year, Oberhausen featured 61 films from 35 countries in the International Competition, 21 films in the German competition, 12 video production in the North-Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) competition, a themed program curated by Mika Taanila (discussed at length later), four profiled filmmakers receiving one to three individual programs each, four featured archives which presented recent restorations, and 12 screenings from organizations which amass historical and contemporary works for rental-based releases to researchers, schools, and film societies around the world. This all makes Oberhausen unique for not only drawing upon a number of sources to assemble its programs, but for individually highlighting organizations and archives which house, restore, and release both historical and contemporary works, as well as presenting programs — particularly the themed program — which bring the old and the new in close dialogue with one another.

This critical conjunction of the old and the new has been with Oberhausen since its inception. Begun in 1954 – five years after the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany – the festival has a distinctive political history, perhaps most fully encompassed in the polemical 1962 Oberhausen Manifesto, written and signed by 26 “young savages” (notably among them Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz) who unified under the motto “Papa’s Cinema is Dead” and declared the need for a New Cinema free from the conventions of industry, commercial partners, and special interest groups. The manifesto ends, “The old film is dead. We believe in the new one.” Sixty years later, Oberhausen retains its stated historical interest in radical filmmaking outside the commercial sector, persisting as a critical site for contemporary German and international film — whether narrative, experimental, or documentary — that pushes cinema forward into unexpected, provocative realms.

Forever following this sentiment, the Festival utilized its 60th anniversary to expand the program into different territory with The Oberhausen Seminar, an experimental course offered for the first time this year. Curated by Federico Windhausen and designed in conjunction with LUX (London) and the Robert Flaherty Seminar (New York), the seminar (of which I was a part) was composed of 30 participants selected from a range of different locales, backgrounds and interests – artistic, curatorial, and/or academic – and featured ongoing discussions with artists and curators, as well as sustained critical engagement with questions concerning the festival, its programs, and its history writ large. I won’t pretend as if the seminar didn’t influence the direction of some writing here, but I should say I am not writing on behalf of the Seminar or operating as some kind of a group representative. The seminar echoed the friendly, engaged, and sometimes contentious nature of the Festival itself. I approach this article, individually, with that same spirit.

Perhaps prompted by the festival’s emphasis on its diamond anniversary combined with the influence of the newly offered seminar, there was an underlying tension throughout the festival between the historical and the contemporary; that is, returning to the words of the 1962 Manifesto, between the old film and the new one. While this may be expected from any festival that wishes to be so heterogeneous, films and videos that bore witness to cross-generational or transhistorical dividing lines stood out in both the competition programs and the themed program, and were further underscored by the archival presence. How does the conflict between “Papa’s Cinema” and the New Cinema play out today? How do isolated historical prerogatives, registered in works of the past, carry over into the present moment? How do contemporary works confront (or elide) their past reference points, whether explicitly stated, comprehended and considered or not?

These questions follow but one thread among the astonishingly diverse slate of works offered at Oberhausen, and thus are necessarily incomplete and, at worst, brazenly insular. (I’ll be discussing two US filmmakers in Competition, and the Themed program, which was more international. I anxiously acknowledge my very limited scope here). Nonetheless, reflecting on the festival as a whole as well as the individual films, it seems crucial to briefly consider how historical and cultural dividing lines – the line between the new cinema of the past and the new cinema of today – assimilate to one another across time and (cinematic) space.

Jennifer Reeder’s A Million Miles Away (winner of the Festival’s ZONTA Prize for the Best Female Filmmaker in Competition) stages a cross-generational psychological dialogue between a group of teenage girls and their substitute choir teacher (Jennifer Estlin). Anchored by terrific performances from Estlin and the teenagers, all played by nonprofessional locals from around Chicago, A Million Miles Away locates moments when the complicated dynamics of solitary struggle are subsumed by a collective unity which transposes suffering into grace. These brutally compassionate moments arrive when indefinable emotional impulses find expression through a familiar chord, a common voice, a communal song — in this case, two songs.

A Million Miles Away begins by establishing the internal language specific to this group of teenage girls — sparkly sunglasses, inspirational quotations spoken to E.T. dolls, half-written letters thrown on the floor, emoji-filled text messages — all set within the isolated confines of their bedrooms. Then a girl begins singing Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” and slowly removes her shades: “Life is a mystery. Everyone must stand alone. I hear you call my name. And it feels like home.” The song soundtracks a montage of the girls in various states of distress. One stares blankly into her speechless E.T. doll; another gazes upward while eyeliner streaks down her face. Another shuffles through a stack of records, while a friend plays on her phone. Another buries her head in a stuffed animal, screaming muffled obscenities into her lone companion. The song, a longing ballad, unifies the characters across the montage before it is interrupted by an intruder, a banging on the door, an interfering adult neither patient with nor privy to teenage logic.

This opening section sets the stage for the rapturous finale. Later, a million miles away, the girls wander through the hallways of their school, while the choir teacher scribbles private notes onto a sketch pad and speaks to herself: “You are like, totally, like, likable. And you are real, really, strong. Stronger. You. You can do this.” Eventually the girls spring into the classroom, interrupting the tense silence with chaotic clamoring. The choir teacher seems helpless in front of the energetic girls who, as we have already seen, function within their own space, in their own time, with their own language.

Nonetheless, as she begins to conduct the choir, the girls transform into a self-propelling force, operating as one unified voice whose words cut across the divide between student and teacher, and directly into the uncertain middle-aged instructor. Their anthem — a choral arrangement of Judas Priest’s “You Got Another Thing Comin’” — stops the instructor in her tracks. She freezes, stops conducting, and becomes overwhelmed by the message: “If you think I’ll sit around as the world goes by/You’re thinking like a fool cause it’s a case of do or die/Out there is a fortune waiting to be had/You think I’ll let it go, you’re mad.” That Reeder claims Judas Priest’s metal badassery as a transhistorical feminist manifesto signals a remarkable demand for cultural shape-shifting, and, through the reversed student-teacher narrative, offers a compelling portrait of generational divide as a double-edged learning curve, instilling a form of mutual assurance through a system in which each side communicates uniquely and individually, yet also speaks to and through the words, characters, and voices of the other.

While A Million Miles Away expresses a tension between the new and the old as a generational concern, Jesse McLean’s Just Us Like (winner of the Festival’s FIPRESCI Prize) highlights a similar tension between the personal and the popular, or, more specifically, the nobody and the celebrity. McLean’s videos display a fascination with popular media and fan culture, particularly the ways in which those media forms become (ironically?) utilized as authentic means of personal expression. There is a sense in which McLean’s work negotiates the boundary between the familiar past and how it is remembered and reconfigured in the present moment. While her films are often humorous and borderline hyperactive, Just Like Us is perhaps McLean’s most subdued and contemplative work to date.

Taking its title from the US Weekly section “Stars – They’re Just Like Us!” McLean — offering a counterpoint to her previous work The Invisible World, in which everyday materials were raised to a nearly cosmic status — brings the stars back down to earth. This is not to say, however, that Just Like Us follows the prerogative of its source material, merely hoping to illustrate that Gwyneth Paltrow does, in fact, take walks in parks. Rather, McLean approaches the hysteria of celebrity worship with a banal, if nonetheless curious demeanor, exemplified by the video’s unseen and unheard narrator who recounts personal thoughts and stories through ongoing subtitles over images of abandoned and suburban landscapes intermixed with footage from multiple media sources. The narrator tells her own stories in the first person, beginning with a bare landscape in front of a highway and commenting “I was raised here,” while the celebrity stories remain solidly third person (“They pick up pet supplies”), thus distant and unknowable.

Over the course of the video, banal landscapes, everyday occurrences, and remote faces transform into emotional triggers. The impersonal “They” of the celebrity takes on an intimate quality stretching across time and space, allowing for a situation in which “I” and “They” torridly collide. McLean masterfully establishes this mode of exchange between sound and image that eerily stretches across the video.

Early on, over the sounds of clicking cameras and close up images of fragmented celebrities, the narrator confesses, “I made love once in a Target parking lot once. Not the one in my hometown. A different Target.” Shortly after the confession, she visually and sonically represents this mode of personal exchange with a jolting cut from an empty Target parking lot to the infamous sex scene from Top Gun in which Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” accompanies the backlit shadows of Tom Cruise and Kelly Macdonald as they softly and slowly transmute into one entwined, corporeal mass. A Target parking lot – all Target parking lots – appear as spectral spaces haunted not only narratively by onscreen depictions of rapturous sex, but also by a melancholic desire for intimacy and connection amidst a landscape of commodified consumerism that augments and shapes memory and personal experience.

So what of that impossible distance between I and They? The video’s final “They” indicates the slippery, shifting nature of this complicated relationship. The narrator comments, “Places aren’t fixed. They follow you around.” Over the image of a man pushing a set of shopping carts across a Lowe’s parking lot, the “They” used throughout the video as an indicator of the distant celebrity becomes something fragile, deeply connected, even affixed to you. McLean reveals a delicate situation in which “They’re just like us” shouldn’t be said at an unknowable distance. They are much closer than you think. They are Stars. They are here and not here. They are everywhere. And they ultimately fade away. They are you.

Where Reeder and McLean offered two individual examples of a certain tension between the past and present, whether explicitly generational or interpersonal, Helsinki-based artist Mika Taanila assembled this year’s themed program, “Memories Can’t Wait – Film Without Film,” which put a number of works from the past and present into direct contact, if not conflict, with one another. Composed of nine curated programs, “Film Without Film” focused rather broadly on the “essential” properties of film experience (the film strip, the projector, the cinematic space itself) and offered several instances of cinema that would frustrate or operate without one or more of those elements. “The desired aim of these programs is to create a viewing scenario, which would challenge the way we think and feel about watching a movie,” Taanila explained. “There is a notion that it’s not the film itself that’s delivering you the stuff, rather it’s you who should be the protagonist.”

Unquestionably inspired by the so-called Structural film moment of the 1960s and 70s and indicative of contemporary interest in Expanded Cinema, “Film Without Film” showcased a broad interest in re-performing canonic “filmless” films, reasserting cinematic space, shifting the role of the viewer, questioning the essentials of film itself, and frustrating the filmic experience, all at the same time. The first and last programs offered mostly historical works as bookends to the program, and were two of the stronger programs. However, Taanila’s decision to embrace an almost baffling heterogeneity not just across the entire program but within individual screenings and several ill-conceived commissioned performances left many audience members more confused than enthralled.

The first program, “Angels,” focused on the blank screen and featured works such as Ernst Schmidt’s 1969 Hell’s Angels, in which audience members make paper airplanes and throw them upward in front of the projector’s beam, and Tony Hill’s 1973 Point Source, where Hill uses a small lamp as a light source and surrounds it with a number of everyday objects, thereby creating strange shadows on-screen which ultimately and frighteningly envelop the entire theater. These expansions of the cinematic theatrical space served as a reminder of the space itself, something that is increasingly lost in the shuffle amidst the digitized moving image screening experience, both at home and in gallery settings where a different set of stakes arise.

However, the program was derailed by the inclusion of Jean Luc Godard’s 1982 Changer d’Image, an aggressively violent contemplation of viewership. Though Godard sits in front of a blank screen, the connection was more arbitrary than productive, not least because the screen of the viewer — Taanila’s protagonist — was not blank, which would seem to undercut the premise of the program. Although the restaging or “updates” of works such as William Raban’s 1973-2014 2’45’’ and Valie Export’s 2014 Abstract Film No. 2 retained their historical and performative value, illogical (or provocative?) disruptions became commonplace and threaten to evacuate these “interventions” of their status as such. The old intervention is dead (or at least old), so what makes these new? And what would the dialogue between these works across time possibly be?

These frustrations were perhaps most clear in the fourth program, entitled “Non-Fiction Non-Film,” in which the films were based on events in the real world but were “impossible to deliver by traditional cinematic means.” This may have been the case for William Raban’s 1973 Take Measure, where film, unwound from its reel, is pulled from the projection booth to the screen and released, so that the projector acts as a measuring device. Even so, it is beyond me what this has to do with Ian Helliwell’s May 2nd 2004, 3:30 AM, an audio recording of a late night fight, or Valie Export’s 1968 street performance Tap and Touch Cinema, documentation of which was projected for the program, or Edgar Pera’s astonishingly offensive 2014 Stillness, hopefully the first and last 3D Holocaust film ever made. Yet these, at least, had something to do with cinema. There was debate if the same could be said for Josef Dabernig’s 2014 Ticket Counter, the first “sports film without a film” in which performers, seated at a table, read aloud the contents of football tickets from games attended by Dabernig between 1989 and 2010. If film can serve as an imprint, a memory, of our past, Dabernig’s performance serves as a questioning of terminology, and a consideration how the past is located in ephemeral, personal fragments.

Once again, even in football tickets, the old come rushing to and through the new. (Do we still believe in the new?) Erkki Huhtamo’s “Moving Panoramas” lecture and Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder’s “Stations of Light,” their first digital performance, illustrate the far-ranging historical questions that spread across Taanila’s program. In the end, “Film Without Film” seemed happier raising questions than in exploring individual topics. Yet, in perhaps something of a sardonic gesture, Taanila ended the entire themed program with Michael Snow’s 1970 A Casing Shelved, in which a single slide of Snow’s studio is presented for 45 minutes while, on the soundtrack, he describes each and every object on the shelf. From the color to the weight to where he bought them to memories of using them, Snow takes account of a vast, heterogeneous field of objects sitting before him, on a couple of shelves, waiting to be used.

Given the baffling array of films and experiences within the “Film Without Film” program and Oberhausen at large, Snow’s film and Taanila’s gesture dryly and humorously point towards the difficulties of taking account of what is before you, not to mention behind. Taanila said throughout the weekend that he wanted to create “collisions” between works across the program so as to open the historical and contemporaneous questions of “Film Without Film” in multiple directions. The collisions may have only created wreckage and splintered fragments of open questions — the entire program could have been renamed “Film?” — but perhaps wreckage is all that remains to build upon.

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