11 May 2009

Guest blogger: Oberhausen - part two by George Clark

As the oldest short film festival in the world, the unique strength of the Oberhausen often lies in drawing from its own remarkable history. Two of the special programmes this year returned to the past of Oberhausen in different way; firstly in the retrospective of Nicolás Echevarría, a Mexican documentary filmmaker, whose only experience of the festival until last year was having his first film Judea (Mexico, 1974) rejected by the festival 30 years ago.

His work draws from traditions of ethnographic and experimental film to document remote communities in rural Mexico. Poetas campesinos (1980) documents a rural circus which Echevarría stumbled across while travelling rural Mexico. Unable to raise funding for 5 years when Echevarría finally returned he found the group disbanded and so went about bringing the different performers together for his film resulting in a somewhat mediated portrait of a tradition which has already dissolved. Judea: Semana Santa entre los Coras on the other hand is a remarkable document of the Easter celebration by the Cora Indians, who have retained but uniquely modified Catholic rituals to their own ends over many years since the departure of missionaries from the region. The film presents an unadorned series of actions, processions and rituals with respect for their own integrity without attempting to explain or comment upon them.

In a different vein the festival also presented a retrospective of the Sarajevo Documentary School, focusing on the work produced by the Sutjeska Film in 60s and 70s which has had an extensive presence at the festival during its early period. Documentaries have always been a crucial component of Oberhausen, which played a crucially important role as champion of work from the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia during from the 50s-80s, and now thanks to the festivals own archive is an important custodian of work from the region. This is especially the case with regard to former Yugoslavia, whose film and archival infrastructure was largely destroyed during conflicts in the region. The programme at Oberhausen deliberately sought to explore the history of work from Bosnia & Herzegovina, to provide an insight into life and work in the region before the traumatic recent history.

The rich history of Yugoslav cinema during this period often referred to as the 'Black Wave,' included work by such maverick directors such as Dusan Makavejev, Alexander Petrovic and Zelimar Zilnik among many others who during the late 60s and early 70s followed the regions own new wave in the early 60s made increasingly critical and darkly humorous films up until the clamp down and imprisonment of director Lazar Stojanovic in 1972. By focusing on a sole film studio, which operated along the same lines at the National Film Board of Canada, the programme presenting a fascinating cross section of work ranging from Facades (Suad Mrkonjić, Yugoslavia, 1972) a slyly subversive documentary of the preparation for 'Self-Government Congress' ironically presenting the inclusive slogans on posters with the old houses they are used to mask, to the beautiful and wordless study of a stone quarry in Heave Ho! (Vlatko Filipović, Yugoslavia, 1967) and Walking School Children (Vefik Hadžismajlović, Yugoslavia, 1966) which follows the epic 12 mile walk of rural children to get to their local school.

The programmes sketched a remarkable social history, with works made with incredible care, passion and genuine regard for the people and places which they document. Two of the directors were present at the festival, along with a representative of the Kinoteka Bosne i Hercegovine where many of the films are kept. Appearing by pure coincidence in matching red jumpers, the two directors talked movingly about the importance of the festival to their early careers, where even though their films were produced for internal exhibition often they would only have been shown at festivals such as Oberhausen. Even when dated, such as the prog-rock scored High Voltage Electricians (Ranko Stanišić, Yugoslavia, 1978) about the building of electrical pylons across the country or the cheeky and ironic Izmet Kosica's Mission (Petar Ljubojev, Yugoslavia, 1977) about the trails in rural areas of a factory recruitment officer, the works present a largely unseen side of Bosnia and Herzegovia, vividly alive, funny and moving.

I only managed to sample a few works from the international competition at the festival this year, which typically presented a broad and diverse selection of works from over 30 countries and ranging in length from 2 minutes to 37 minutes. Selected from over 4,000 submissions the international competition at Oberhausen is notoriously over subscribed and the resulting programmes, while retaining the festivals commitment to all forms of the short film, often leave people somewhat bemused by some of the films they include.

Despite this the competition included many great films – some of which I've mentioned here before in my blog on Rotterdam, such as Jim Trainor's The Presentation Theme and Duncan Cambell's Bernadette. Other stand out works included leading independent Chinese director Jia Zhang-Ke's Cry Me a River, a work of remarkable subtly and emotion that follows the bitter-sweet 10 year reunion of four Chinese college students and the unresolved issues that have coloured their generation. Utilising actors familiar from his feature films, such as Platform and Still Life, this work is of comparable rigour and avoids the pitfall of other feature film makers producing under par work in the short form.

British artist Jayne Parker, whose work has been showcased at the festival in profiles and competitions in previous years, presented meticulously crafted work Trilogy: Kettle's Yard produced at the Cambridge gallery filming a performance and also sculptures from their collection. My Absolution by Russian video artist Victor Alimpiev, presents an abstracted performance, where a closely huddled group against a white screen collectively hold a note until one collapses, rigorously filmed with an attention for the textures of skin and fabric to parallel the film screen.

Charlotte Pryce presented her delicate 16mm film The Parable of the Tulip Painter and the Fly, a beautifully shot film poem. Swedish artist Saskia Holmkvist, whose work revolves around a subversion and exploration of public personae, presented In Character an ambiguous confrontation in a job interview where the the manipulation of 'neutral' interview techniques is exposed.

Amit Dutta, a remarkable Indian filmmaker who has produced a series of lyrical films drawing heavily and fantastically from Indian folk culture, presented a more sober side with Jangarh Film exploring the Indian painter Jangarh Singh Shyam's life and tragic death in 2001 when he committed suicide in a museum in Japan. Born in Central India, Jangarh was part of the Gond tribe whose wall paintings where spotted by the artist J Swaminathan when he was 17 and brought to national and international attention. The film is a loosely structured documentary starting in Jangarh's village, with conversations with his family and friends, where we learn strange details such as the origin of Jangarh name, which was taken from the national census (which in Indian is Jangarh) which was being conducted at the time of his birth. The film concentrates on Jangarh's cultural and social origins in India and avoids projections on the international community or the effects of commodification of the work by indigenous people, to focus on the surroundings and environment from which Jangarh took inspiration and lovingly decorated with his fantastic murals and wall drawings.

With the announcement of the festival awards it seems that the programmers kept the best for last, as the final competition programme included three of the main winners, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (Thailand, 2009) by Apichatpong Weerasethakul which received the Grand Prize and the North Rhine-Westphalia prize, Ketamin – Hinter dem Licht (Germany, 2009) by Carsten Aschmann and True Story (USA, 2004/2008) by Robert Frank. Both Frank and Weerasethakul are excellent artists each at different stages of their career, Frank still producing arresting work after 50 years and Weerasethakul continuing his development and emergence as one of the most fascinating and continually inventive artists working with film and video at the moment (I didn't see 'Ketamin' so am unable to comment on Aschmann's work).

Other prizes went to Duncan Campbell for his film Bernadette, which is looking set to dominate festivals this year after having already been awarded at Rotterdam in January and picked up two prizes here, the Arte Prize and the International Critics’ Prize (FIPRESCI Prize).

A full list of the festival prizes can be found on the Oberhausen website.

Image: A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, Apichatpong Weerasethakul

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