This is a film? 65th Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen Art Monthly #428, July-August 2019

‘This is a film?’ opens Gerard Depardieu in Marguerite Duras’ Le Camion (The Lorry), 1977. ‘It would have been a film,’ replies Duras. ‘It is a film.’ It would have been in order that it is, unfolding entirely in the conditional, requiring cinema to undo itself by replacing illustration with imagination.

Curiously, given its length and age, Le Camion was one of the highlights of this year’s Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen; an inspired choice for its otherwise shaky Conditional Cinema strand. Duras’ shift from condition to certainty is for Depardieu’s, or our purposes only, an emollient to suspend what we might normally require a film to be in order that the-film-which-is-not unfold. She continues, ‘We’d hear the sea from far off, but loudly.’ And following this mode, everything which subsequently happens does not happen, the ‘film’ existing only in the read-through of Duras’ skeletal script, save for brief snatches of a lorry – a mocking salve for an image-starved audience – against a repeated motif from Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, the imaginative scope of which is similarly wrested from the meagrest of means; something which cannot have escaped Duras. 

Where Le Camion would have been a film, Conditional Cinema would have been a timely and active engagement with cinema as site. As it was, however, much of the programme fell to instrumentalising and illustrating its own thesis: not the potential of cinema but its mimesis.

A pairing of performances by Peter Miller and Manuela de Laborde, both of whom had also presented work at the 2018 festival, perhaps signalled this mistake most clearly. De Laborde’s Ficciones’ collapsing of intra- and extra-filmic timelines proposes a trilogy which uses the annual cycle of the festival as a structure alongside the time in which each year’s event itself unfolds, manifested in clay sculptures left en plein air in Oberhausen for the past year. Now moss-covered, they became the protagonists in a film which played out behind the artist, seated and reading a rather morose and lumpen text. It is a conceit that is attractive on paper, yet in realisation it was, like the artist’s presentation last year, stolid, literal and ponderous, the mossy shapes themselves reduced to clumpy actors in an artless 16mm backdrop.

Peter Miller’s two performances were similarly disappointing. Where Ficciones at least set up a framework to justify its return, Miller’s This Thing Connecting Us was a straightforward rehash of his already-underwhelming performance at the previous year’s festival: a sub-structuralist game in which a reel of 35mm film is unspooled and fed throughout the audience. As a comment on the terms of cinema in 2019, it was, like the theremin performance which followed, strangely immune to its own irrelevance.

Yet many of the treasures of the festival assume modest forms, away from the smoke and mirrors. The slim but fascinating series Re-selected takes the stories of individual film prints – travellers whose many engagements have left traces both physical and ephemeral – to think around the social and political contexts of those journeys. 

Two political films made in Egypt and Yemen in the late 1970s spoke of similar currents. Though Syrian director Omar Amilaray’s An Thawra (On a Revolution), 1978, commissioned by the then-People’s Democractic Republic of Yemen, was arguably the better film, it was the story behind Waseyat Ragol Hakeim (The Advice of a Wise Man on the Affairs of Village and Education), Daoud Abdel Sayed, 1976, which proved most compelling. 

A curious piece of anti-state propaganda, The Advice of a Wise Man… was an unsubtle but constant satire, its rancour aimed towards a paternalistic and repressive state. Shown at Oberhausen in 1978, the film was only returned once the festival had produced a copy print, fearing its destruction once back in Egypt. This act of unplanned archiving is encoded in what is now believed to be the only remaining copy of the film in the form of circular marks on the 16mm print, copies of punch-holes in the 35mm original used to instruct the projectionist to change reels.

Elsewhere the festival’s invitational strand for international film archives turned up some intriguing oddities. Programmes from Walker Art Center and Národní filmový archiv in Prague spoke as much of the act of collecting as of the collections themselves, with results that were enjoyably heterogeneous. Bringing together a railway worker’s home movies with the US government’s account of the atomic bomb tests on Bikini Atoll (Operation Crossroads, 1946), the Walker conjured a neat sense of the democratising effects of archival practice, and of filmmaking more generally, on an otherwise over-determined historicity. Even this outwardly straightforward material belied a syncresis not immediately visible: the print of Operation Crossroads was artist Bruce Conner’s own, having sought its declassification in order to produce his own work based on it, Crossroads, in 1976).

The festival’s extensive retrospective programme around Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov, included his stunning 327-minute diary Spiritual Voices, 1995. Over five episodes the film follows the life of Russian soldiers on the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. While the touch of Sokurov’s friend Andrei Tarkovsky is immediately tangible in the sense of existential threat that hangs over the dusty valley where the soldiers are holed up, it is not in a form as outwardly spiritual as that older filmmaker’s works. Where Tarkovksy created a fictional framework, an inner core, around which to organise metaphysical enquiry, here, the ‘spirit’ of the title is formed from without, from ingredients lent to Sokurov by the situation itself. 

To follow Duras’ assertion that ‘cinema stops the text and kills its offspring, the imagination,’ would be to require that any ‘conditional’ programme instead liberate the imagination by releasing cinema from its own bounds. While the smoke of a struggle with the conditions of cinema hung in the air, curiously, it coalesced most effectively outside of the programme established explicitly for that purpose. It is a worthy struggle, and it needs be enacted at Oberhausen. Yet if the festival is not content that it exist by chance, in its corridors, and instead be housed in a dedicated structure, then it must find a dynamic capable of doing justice to its own enquiry.