69th Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen (Art Monthly 468, July/August 2023)

“To look at cinema’s past and at its possible futures at the same time, is there any better prospect?” concludes curator Xavier García Bardón in his text for this year’s International Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen. Such an invocation could serve happily as a thesis for the festival itself, a contemporary commentator via the significant hindsight of its sixty-nine years.

It is perhaps in curator Tobias Hering’s Re-selected series, which appraises histories via films in the Oberhausen archive, that the genome of the festival finds its most coherent expression. Re-selected considers the conditions of its titles’ production and reception, and their material status, via the circulation of film prints lodged with the festival. 

Here, a specific history manages to connect its own material structure and the units of its production with a present political currency. This year, two of the series’ programmes framed a moment in time in the late 1970s when the festival’s stance towards, and the effect of, geopolitical upheavals crystallised the agency it had as both commentator and comrade: the potential of cinema – and festival – to effect solidarity.

The compelling second programme and extensive discussion session, curated by research and production collective Subversive Film (Reem Shilleh and Mohanad Yaqubi), dissected a moment in 1978 when Oberhausen issued a statement of solidarity with the Palestinian Cinema Institute after the killing of two cameramen. Circling this with, first, a film tribute to compatriot Hani Joharieh, killed in action in Lebanon (Palestine in the Eye, Mustafa Abu Ali, 1977), and second with Kaiss al-Zubaidi’s Counter Siege, 1978, a document of life under siege in the West Bank by the Israelis, the programme reflected a period in the 70s when visibility of the Palestinian struggle gained momentum internationally. 

The German context was far from incidental: a call for solidarity, mirroring that of others issued elsewhere in the world, fell very differently in post-war Germany, and it provoked a public spat between the then-festival director and Oberhausen mayor, and Holocaust survivor, Luise Albertz. This blind spot around Palestine can be traced today, with, as Yaqubi related, no films relating to the Palestinian struggle in Berlin’s Arsenal film archive, despite there being several from contemporaneous political crises in Cuba, Chile and elsewhere. 

The archive is political, of course, but a politics defined not only by its component parts but its lacunae, its emptiest shelves the antimatter to its stated motives. This finds its most extreme manifestation in the Palestinian territories themselves, where there is a continuing absence of an entire film archive — symptomatic not only of the chaos of occupation and the dispersal or loss of material but a conscious political strategy which seeks to protect protagonists and tactics still in current circulation. What the Re-selected series demonstrates is that if an archive is for a neutralised politics, a post hoc record of struggle, then a film festival’s immediate currency offers the opposite, and it is Oberhausen’s command of both contemporary and historical sources – and its meticulous stewardship and willingness to entertain a certain self-reflexivity – which marks it as internationally distinctive and of signal importance.

Elsewhere, occupying one of this year’s artist profiles, García Bardón’s retrospective of Marcel Broodthaers’ rarely-screened films was a delight, his work a sinuous dance between word and object, slipping from description to inscription to exscription: poems on film by an ex-poet and not-filmmaker. Beyond García Bardón’s sensitive curation, it was the format and context offered by the festival which elevated the three programmes: a context of site and time, only here and only now. The programmes played in the presence of the artist’s widow, Maria Gilissen Broodthaers, with whom he had made most of his films, and who kept the curator on his toes by quickly rejecting the microphone to present instead a tri-lingual muttered marginalia from the front row which became an essential companion to the screenings; a description no more, rather a joint performance in which, for the course of the programme, she joined her late husband once again in the weave of the works.

As the tenor of Gilissen Broodthaers’ spirited commentary suggested, to look to the past is not to consult a closed book, but rather the opportunity to repopulate the present. The proposition of posthumous retrospectives or the archival specificity of programmes like Re-selected could wind up hermetic and dead, but instead, it was the contemporary which suffered at this year’s festival, the care of the more museological approach in proximity to the festival’s thematic core, Against Gravity which demonstrated, unintentionally, the poverty of the latter.

Against Gravity explored Machinima, the ‘very evasive and dynamic media phenomenon’, as its curators describe it, of producing films using video games to supply actors and scenography. Framed here as a critique of capitalism – a disassembly of the perfect commercial unit of the video game – the films presented instead only seemed to confirm the pervasive power of capitalism to flatten and confer uniformity, and dissent as thin and introspective.

The game worlds’ hyperactive virtual drone shots swoop, lurch, fly by, travel through but never rest, only adding to a sense of nausea, both figurative and literal. Images were either incidental or illustrative, in constant surplus yet inconsequential. To resist would surely mean to disrupt the gameplay, to smear this puppet-show of perfect vectors and avatars by invoking the world beyond the screen, but the programme seemed content to revolve around the rather humble observation that a commodity expresses the values of the world which creates it. After a surfeit of movement, of virtual violence dressed up as satire, the questions that remain are, firstly, what does all this tell us about capitalism that we did not already know, and secondly, in what way does it compel us to act against it? Or, more concisely, perhaps, so what?

To look to cinema’s past – partial, partisan, particular – is an important function of an active and engaged present, and certainly the only way to ensure a rich and committed future. Were the theme to have taken a broader subject – for instance, around ‘the machine’ rather than ‘Machinima’ – it would have been better able to open up an engaging discourse, and, via programming which relied less on a singular technique, to activate the counterpoint between past and future which Oberhausen is so skilled at summoning. With Re-selected having reached the end of its original funding, however, the festival risks losing a crucial seam, and García Bardón’s proposition edges further from question towards imperative.