66th Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen Art Monthly #438, July 2020

Viewed from most angles, at least for pre-internet curmudgeons, the very idea of an ‘online festival’ is painful, contradictory even. But needs must, and many film and art festivals have had scant time to decide whether to move to a remote model or else be cancelled entirely. What the experiment in Oberhausen this year confirms, simultaneously, is that watching dozens of short films on a tiny screen is hateful; and that that experience is still preferable to it not existing. Where to go from here?

As an experience, the form of ‘online cinema’ is utterly second-rate. Where films would be presented as unique events, in a timeless zone, in a space far from space, they are instead lost in the domestic, crippled by screen size, overshadowed by more pressing activities; in short, trampled on by the world-at-large where they should be standing in for the world-at-large. This is an illusion, of course. The films are entirely repeatable, their screenings never unique, and there exist enough micro-distractions in the average cinema theatre to equal the odd incursion of dinner-cooking or childminding. But what a festival requires is the presence of its audience, a collective intellectual corpus, and it forms this via physical pilgrimage primarily because this remains an effective way of temporarily renouncing the world by removing oneself from it. By journeying elsewhere, the audience enjoins in concentration, to one degree or another, around a common subject.

Of those afforded profile programmes this year, the two screenings dedicated to artist Maya Schweizer endured the flattening of the online format relatively unscathed. A current of surveillance, and its attendant perspective – invariably from above, as its etymology would suggest, dehumanising or at least reducing the human occupants of a space – sit behind much of Schweizer’s work; not so much the detachment of architectural photography but rather a political gesture emphasising the power relationship between actors and stage. Where A Memorial, a Bridge, a Synagogue and a Church, 2012, proposes public space as actor, Insolite, 2019, and Texture of Oblivion, 2016, share a haptic examination of the sculptural potential, and perhaps memory, of material itself. Au dos de la Carte Postale, 2010, unravels the embedded and intertwined histories of Orientalisms, then and now, juxtaposing the 1889 World’s Fair with the Eiffel Tower today, where police pursue Senegalese traders, not illegal but not wanted.

The work of Geneva-based Rwandan artist Philbert Aimé Mbabazi Sharangabo, meanwhile, deals with myth-making, storytelling, and histories personal and political. Via polysemous, snaking narratives, the artist troubles the lines between the scripted, role-played and real to access a structural catharsis of sorts in which it feels as all modes are at play at once. It is never quite clear what might be unstaged, what is staged as a mise en abyme, and what is staged outright: an effect particularly tangible in both The Liberators, 2016, and Keza Lyn, 2018, both of which circle recurrent themes of doubling, duping and scripting.

Mbabazi Sharango’s films, while each indivisible, form a distinct body which has them also function almost as chapters in a wider, unseen work orbiting a set of partially observable central preoccupations: an oneiric sensation heightened by the artist’s recurrent use of many of the same actors, including himself. Where the result could be gauche or flat, it is instead unusually fluent, dazzling even, and measured without being studied, built on an invisible architecture—both rare achievements given that at least two of the works were student films. Synthesising a seductive, cinematic visuality with an ambiguous and oblique dramaturgy, his work has been celebrated by art and film contexts alike, appearing alongside the festival at Oberhausen as part of the series Ecole du Soir: Six Films from Rwanda, and Beyond for e-flux Video & Film.

Elsewhere, harmonies appeared by chance: Barbara Hammer’s enjoyable 1985 work Would You Like to Meet Your Neighbor? A New York Subway Tape was joined, across programmes, by the Grand Prize winner Lynne Sachs’ A Month of Single Frames, 2019, made ‘with and for’ Barbara Hammer as she prepared for her own death. Likewise Jolanta Marcolla’s droll early video pieces Kiss, 1975, the artist blowing kisses to the viewer, and Reakcja wymuszona (Forced Response), 1976, in which the cameraman ignores etiquette around permission or proximity, compelling passers-by to engage and stealing their image—both unexpectedly resonant in the climate of lockdown.

Those elements that are stripped from this online Oberhausen – its social body, its theme programmes – crystallise much of what makes it an interesting proposition in the first place. Yet if the event had, as Festival Director Lars Henrik Gass puts it, ‘stayed in bed,’ it would have been missed. Despite the trials of the laptop-and-sofa auditorium, something of the spirit of the event endured. And curiously, it was precisely the compression engineered by the online format which opened up previously inaccessible, or at least unaccessed areas of the festival. The sofa admitted junior members for the engaging children’s programmes; and there was something oddly satisfying, too, about the DJ sets, crowdless yet intimate. 

Though any shortcomings of an ‘online festival’ are not attributable to Oberhausen, acting at short notice to reinvent itself, if some amount of social distance must endure beyond the current acute Coronavirus situation as seems likely, the model itself needs be radically rethought—as it must for cinemas themselves. Certainly the festival has been willed into energising its online presence, which will be beneficial in future irrespective of the form the event takes. But what will be needed beyond that, here and elsewhere, is a networked experience which can transcend the ubiquitous containers of the web to produce something which more honestly, actively and immediately deals with the question or problem – here, showing and sharing work in the moving image – in its own language. Cinema is characterised by collective viewing, and by viewing under certain prescribed conditions. If neither of these can be preserved, perhaps it is better to move to a model which is freer, more fluid, which takes advantage of the form of the web – distributed, peer-led, mutable, infinite – not performs in spite of it.