Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen 2016: El Pueblo Art Monthly #397, June 2016

With more in common with a visual arts biennial than the standard film festival model, Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen is unusual for the intellectual space it sets aside for a substantial thematic programme—and, notably, for its continued commitment to doing so.

‘El Pueblo’, this year’s theme curated by Buenos Aires-based Federico Windhausen, promised a socio-historical take on the political structures of Latin America. Usage of the term el pueblo modulates between a universal socialism and what reads at times like crypto-racism. It is woven into the double helix of social life in Spanish-speaking Latin America and is an essential component of how its societies conjure a sense of collectivity. Stemming from the concept of the village – the micro-community – the meaning of el pueblo extends to its dizzying macro-political opposite, the entire people of a nation or region.

The obverse of the concept, with its rallying cry of belonging, ‘Somos el pueblo’ (We are the people), is cast against a reverse which is necessarily predicated on exclusion: if we are the people, where are they who aren’t? It is this tension, and a desire both to unlock its historicity and to gauge its application for a post-dictatorship, neoliberal order, which sits at the heart of Windhausen’s theme.

The first programme in the series brought together a visually distinctive body of work which looked obliquely at the land and its occupation by the body via modes ranging from the meta-documentary to the performative and the fantastic. Paraguayan filmmaker Federico Adorno’s careful, disquieting work La Estancia, 2014, distilled what at first seemed to be magic-realist tableaux from what was in fact a real event, the Curuguaty massacre in which peasants were murdered by police after a dispute over land ownership. The more playful tone of Beatriz Santiago Muñoz’s faux-ritual to dance out the devil in La cabeza mató a todos, 2014, was nevertheless an effort to summon the exorcism of the US army, ever present in Muñoz’s Puerto Rico – and indeed the subject of much of her other work.

In ‘Labour is Absence’, the series’ second programme, Windhausen asserted that it follows that the site of labour only obscures that site where there is none, or where it takes a different form, which although somewhat specious did give pause to the notion that what we witnessed here was one instance of the work that the ‘other’ undergoes; the invisible site of production by a growing underclass whose only effects we might perceive from without are the fruits of that labour. Those products are actualised in Chick Strand’s marvellous 1986 film Fake Fruit Factory, the observational approach of which – easygoing, sun-drenched and apparently entirely casual – is belied by a rigorous formal attachment to the extreme close-up, never granting us access to the world beyond the frame of the immediate work of its subject: the Mexican women in the factory of its title.

In the face of so complete a work as Strand’s, El palacio, 2013, by Mexican filmmaker Nicolás Pereda read as rather more effervescent for its detachment from its subject. While it nurtured a neatly quixotic conceit – that of an imagined finishing school for domestic workers that would ensure their employability – the film turned on a truth which it seemed oblivious to, namely a patriarchal system which requires women to continue to seek, rather than reject, menial labour in the service of the rich(er). If conceived entirely earnestly, it was still immune to its own position of privilege and the irony of the gender of its director, and indeed this was a worm which began to surface elsewhere in the scope of the theme.

That is not to say that ‘El Pueblo’ didn’t continue to nourish, and its engagement with archival work, in particular, was a pleasure. Both Somos +, a powerfully afecting 1985 documentary by Kollectiv (Pablo Salas and Pedro Chaskel) of a political demonstration by women in Santiago and the heavy-handed response of Pinochet’s police, and Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s Brasília, contradições de uma cidade nova, 1967, which moved from a commissioned promotional film about Oscar Niemeyer’s new city into a document of dissent, were highlights of the theme as a whole.

Though Windhausen’s programmes were authoritative about certain instances of the ‘we’ that el pueblo summons, they were rather less articulate about the ‘them’. It seemed disappointingly predictable that here the discussion of a continent with a sizeable and largely disenfranchised indigenous population was commandeered largely by the work of white men; more concerning still when Windhausen argued that the films he had researched by indigenous peoples were too long and would have unbalanced the programmes.

In the programme ‘Against Ethnography’, which set itself up to assert just that, arrived the semblance of the authentic voice of the other – most directly with Dominique Gallois and Vincent Carelli’s A arca dos Zo’é, 1993, a journey inside a closed tribe in the far north of Brazil. But, once again, the experience is mediated by outsiders – as the filmmakers’ names suggest – and for all its apparent veracity as a devolved activity, returning the power to the dispossessed, it is familiar precisely because it is an ethnographic document. The irony is that, while the theme set out both to map and critique this sense of (un)belonging, where it could have attempted to carve a new meaning for el pueblo – one which found common ground in divergent histories – it seemed to confirm the exclusionary logic, but unconsciously, rather than as a product of its hypothesis.

This notwithstanding, there was much to admire in Windhausen’s approach as well as in his gracious, scholarly presence at screenings and attention to the dynamics and breadth of the programmes. It was most encouraging, too, for the festival to devote this much attention to so politically concrete and timely a subject in the face of much theoretical flannelling at comparable events. The foundations of ‘El Pueblo’ were thoughtful and taut, but perhaps too taut in places, and were the theme afforded a more propositional approach its lacunae might have eroded its relevance less.

The 62nd Oberhausen Short Film Festival took place 5-10 May.