7 May 2009
'Weg zum Nachbarn,' which translates into English as 'The way to the neighbour,' was established as the motto of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen in 1958, then in its fifth year. Now in its 55th year, the festival has gone through successive changes of direction, weathered protests and upheavals and championed successive generations of filmmakers and artists while retaining its core dedication to bringing film cultures from around the world together for the five days of the festival. This year was no different which a typically far ranging competition programme but also special screenings dedicated to a Sarajevo documentary studio, a leading Japanese experimental director, a Mexican ethnographic film maker and most substantially in its large thematic programme, Unreal Asia, a sustained and reflective examination of the contemporary practice in the many countries that make up the region contentiously grouped together as South East Asia.
I arrived at the festival on the first full day of screenings in time to catch the opening programme of the Unreal Asia strand. Occupying the festivals Theme strand, Unreal Asia consisted of 10 individual programmes curated by the Thailand based curators Gridthiya Gaweewong and David Teh. Assembled to reflect the contemporary practice in countries as diverse as Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam, the programme also sought to propose a series of questions or propositions for how the region of South East Asia can fruitfully be approached considering the divergent cultures, religions, languages and social and political history of an area whose grouping is a relic of British and later American military operations in the East.
Unreal Asia is the latest in a range of thematic programmes that distinguish Oberhausen from many festivals which rarely commit on this scale to such wide ranging thematic explorations. In recent years programmes have explored the parallels between European and American experimental film and their counterparts in the Soviet Union, looked at the middle east through the prism of Lebanon and reflections on successive conflicts and the relation of the cinema to the museum in the influential programme Kinomuseum. Unreal Asia proposed a similarly fascinating series of questions and proposals while also crucially presenting a wide range of work that is rarely if ever shown outside of the countries of origin.
The programmes presented many works by internationally established artists such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Emerald about traces in a defunct hotel in Bangkok and Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook's The Two Planet Series in which Thai farmers respond to European master paintings, Subodh Gupta's provocative performance video Pure (India, 1999), Ho Tzu Nyen's potted history the naming of Sinapore with Utama – Every Name In History is I and Dinh Q. Lê's three screen work exploring a farmers fascination with helicopters against the context of the Vietnam War. Such works were presented alongside documentaries and works produced by Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community groups often on the level of local activism.
The unnerving documentaries presented a remarkable affectation-free view of contemporary life, from the Vietnamese couple who run a dog-butchery in their back yard in Better Than Friends (Tuan Andrew Nguyen, 2003), to The Longest Day (Uruphong Raksasad, Thailand, 2005) which is a portrait of an old Thai woman bored with her life and waiting for death, and the disarmingly powerful Death In Jakarta (Ucu Agustin, Indonesia, 2006) which presents the routine procedures to handle the unidentified dead in the capital city. Another stand out filmmaker in Unreal Asia for me was Amir Muhammad, whose brilliant short films present the complex issues of cultural and political identity within Malaysia with a critical humour and lightness of touch which avoids didacticism in works such as Kamunting (2002) and and Checkpoint (2002).
Finally, to end this first post I'll mention the work of Japanese experimental and documentary filmmaker Matsumoto Toshio who was honoured at the festival with the largest retrospective of his work outside of Japan. Famous for his highly influential feature film Funeral Parade of Roses (Japan, 1969) both a key work of the Arts Theatre Guild and largely known as a key inspiration for Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. The sheer range of Matsumoto's work and his influential role as writer and lecturer is rarely known outside of Japan where he is along with Shuji Terayama the leading experimental film maker from the 1960s.
The real revelation of the season was the strength of his early documentary work such as the excellent Weavers of Nishijn (Japan, 1961) which depicts the traditional processes of fabric manufacturing that has existed in the region for years. Other early works included the wonderful industrial films Bicycle of Dream' (Japan, 1955) and Record of a Long White Line (Japan, 1960) whose surreal presentations of the bicycle and electrical industry including strange optical effects and camera tricks, met with utter confusion and rejection by their backers. The later work by Matsumoto was more familiar formal experiments with film ranging from his early psychedelic works such as Ecstasis: Kokotsu (Japan, 1969) and the three screen freak-out For My Crushed Right Eye (Japan 1968) to later video works such as the bizarre Mona Lisa (Japan, 1973) which superimposes Michelangelo's muse into a array of abstract landscapes and the more formal dissections of the frame in Yuragi: Sway (Japan, 1985). Mothers (Japan, 1967) was an utter anomaly, it is a globe trotting humanist and anti-war film, set to a poem by Shuji Terayama and depicts maternal relationships around the world from New York to Vietnam. For sheer audacity and unchecked ambition it couldn't be matched and providing a home for such maverick work has been a core of the festival since its inception and is one of its greatest pleasures.