68th Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen (Art Monthly 457, June 2022)

Curated by Annett Busch and Marie-Hélène Gutberlet, the theme at this year’s Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, Synchronize! Connections, References, Encounters: Pan-African film networks, surveyed African filmmaking past and present, rooted and diasporic, via eight film programmes and three discussion sessions. 

Memory, cultural and personal, defined by the extent of its volition and presence, threaded through much of the programme, as did questions of agency and power, circling identity, authenticity and the politics of intercession: how cultural memory is produced, who enjoys the agency to produce it, how it relates to official historiography and, ultimately, who has the authority to speak on behalf of whom. This last provocation, in particular, was not only articulated by many of the films but haunted the scaffold of festival and theme themselves.

Street-trader Farouk Azzoug’s stall in Algiers of postcards and photographs of sites, events and political figures from the country’s postcolonial past offers an associative map of the country’s fortunes in Katia Kameli’s remarkable three-part work Le Roman Algerien, 2016-19. Situating Azzoug’s kiosk as cipher for the process of historiography, the starting point of a thesis for a history that is situated and embodied, Kameli establishes in Chapter 2 a commentary by three key women: French-Algerian philosopher Marie-José Mondzain, Algerian lawyer and writer Wassyla Tamzali and Algerian writer and sometime independence fighter Louisette Ighilahriz.

Kameli’s process of reflecting on histories via archival photographs and in-screen interlocutors, creating a stage on which images frame other images, shares much with the work of Filipa César or Bouchra Khalili: a patient, quiet yet tenacious and at points electrifying essay on the image as both witness to and progenitor of history — an encoded portent, as Tamzali suggests, of a probable future. Such a practice should be dry and academic, yet in Kameli’s roman we are witness to a history activated; laid out as the key to a present moment and future imaginary.

In the discussion session Working Conditions, a panel of artists tackled issues around cultural memory. In Galb’Echaouf, 2021, Abdessamad El Montassir, from Western Sahara, assembles both human and non-human agents to ask how ‘we [can] understand something we have not experienced but which we keep the traces of deep within ourselves?’ Delicately nuanced, alive with allegory, El Montassir’s film approaches the bloody history of his country with a certain poetic trepidation, alert to the generational divide which separates the elective amnesia of parents from their children’s will to reclaim a collective memory of their country’s past. 

The conditions of production were likewise a focus of L’envers du décors, 1981, which documents the making of Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène’s feature film Ceddo, 1977. The film’s cinematographer, Georges Caristan, explains that the ‘dailies’ (the film prints of the day’s filming, to be delivered and assessed each day of a shoot) are delayed by weeks, and that he therefore cannot review what he has filmed and is proceeding blind. Marooned in a perpetual present, able neither to look back nor perceive the path that lies ahead of it, the production of Ceddo mirrors African political histories more broadly.

Those works which perhaps offered the clearest perspective on the present are those, ironically, furthest removed from it. Madeline Anderson’s powerful rallying cry Integration Report 1, 1960, documents the American Civil Rights Movement as it gains pace, including protests against the killing of unarmed Black man Al Garrett after arrest on spurious charges by a white policeman. Here, the unbroken circle of a history which visits the same violence on Black subjects, Garrett’s murder opening onto an unbroken view of a present populated by almost identical extrajudicial killings at the hands of a police state more, not less emboldened despite the civil rights movement. Here again, a latent future, ‘as though the images were gestating the present,’ to borrow Mondzain’s allusion.

Intersecting with the theme, curator Karina Griffth’s programme On All Fronts for the festival’s archive strand revisited circled Confrontation of Cultures, a programme series held at Oberhausen in 1993. Noting in her overview that ‘there was a notable absence of work authored by Black Germans’ within the programme, Griffiths addresses this lacuna post hoc by bringing together parts of the original programme with work by filmmakers extant at the time, not least Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro; The Young Karl Marx), with his (German) graduation film Leugt, 1983.

How can we understand something we have not experienced? El Montassir’s question came to serve as both guiding enquiry for much of the theme programme, but also as demand. This interrogative echoed across the programmes of Synchonize!, which became somehow both the most interesting and, in many ways, heterogeneous theme of recent years at Oberhausen, yet at once emblematic of a certain cultural slippage which demanded a closer reading. 

If the festival had failed to work with Black German filmmakers in 1993, it had at least brought together two prominent Black curators, June Givanni and Coco Fusco, to lead Confrontation of Cultures. In 2022, its choice of two white European curators to oversee a significant programme series about African cinema seems discomfitingly colour-blind, and ignorant of the relative power of curators to artists. Busch and Gutberlet’s programmes sought to emphasise connections, not differences, and to foment conversations: objectives which they largely achieved. But difference exists, and representation does matter. Africa’s history of subjugation, coercion and extraction at the hands of Europeans continues to animate the politics of the present. It would be fatuous to circumscribe white curators to  work only within the bounds of the Global North, but given the scale and definition of Synchronize!, there are many ways in which the curators could have addressed the imbalance and usefully ceded some power — by using their invitation as a means to share the space with curators of colour, or to open up a reflexive debate around the politics of representation with the festival and its stakeholders. 

That such a programme was possible is laudable, as is its diversity of material and the collegiality of its curators; likewise that the festival continues to commit to alterity and to making room for the marginal in otherwise Eurocentric discourse. The hope is that it will continue to consider the power structures it presides over and the relative agency of its constituents in editions to come.