29 May 2009

We recommend: Currents of Time at Rivington Place

Zineb Sedira's latest solo exhibition, Currents of Time, opened this week at Rivington Place, east London. The show features new work Floating Coffins, an immersive multi-screen installation complemented by an atmospheric soundscape, thoughtfully arranged in the main project space of Rivington Place. Sedira explores through the piece the graveyard of rotting ships that exists at the Mauritian harbour of Nouadhibou. The work is haunting and beautiful, conjuring up a desolate landscape of migrating birds and grounded ships.

Currents of Time also features an installation of light boxes and photographs collected during the making of Floating Coffins. The exhibition continues until 25 July. Zineb Sedira will be leading an artist's tour on 4 June at 7pm. For more information about this and other related events check out the Rivington Place website.

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

7 May 2009

Guest Blogger: Oberhausen - part one by George Clark

'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.