Flat Feat


Luther Price, Mother (revised), 2002, color, sound, 17 minutes.

EACH MAY, the depressed yet verdant city of Oberhausen, tucked into Germany’s Ruhr industrial valley, plays host to one of the world’s oldest, most storied and important showcases for short films. With a limited local audience composed of rambunctious kinder attending the ambitious children’s programs, the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen attracts an international audience of filmmakers, programmers, professors, and, increasingly, gallery and museum curators who convene for a long weekend’s worth of screenings and discussions. While many festivals have expanded to incorporate installation sidebars, Oberhausen has, over the past decade, successfully engaged the art world, despite repeatedly asserting its mandate to present film and video solely in the cinema. Along with its main and regional competitions (featuring a mix of experimental, documentary, fiction, and animation works), the festival includes the MuVi music video competition, market screenings of artists’ films from nonprofit distributors, a handful of filmmaker profiles, and a newly created and warmly welcomed archive section, in addition to a comprehensive curated program which provides the edition’s main theme, previously guest curated by notable artists and curators such as Akram Zaatari (representing Lebanon in this year’s Venice Biennale) and Ian White, formerly of London’s Whitechapel Gallery.

Following last year’s momentous return to origins with a focus on the Oberhausen Manifesto and the revolutionary beginnings of German avant-gardists Alexander Kluge, Werner Herzog, et al., the fifty-ninth edition of the festival announced that it was high time to tackle our contemporary situation—that is, cinema after the Internet. With its seemingly matter-of-fact title, “Flatness,” this year’s thematic program was conceived by independent UK-based curator Shama Khanna, with curatorial contributions by British artists Oliver Laric, Anthea Hamilton, and Ed Atkins. Though the premise is indeed timely—urgent, even—the theme struggled to take shape (no pun intended) over the course of its eight programs and remained frustratingly vague and amorphous. In other words, it fell flat. The term “flatness” became an easy target for cinema-hungry patrons as incoherence was matched by a number of substandard works (some made for the gallery, others plucked from YouTube) offered up as direct descendents of Robert Bresson’s incomparable corpus, flatness being variously interpreted as a blunting of sensation, a diminishing of dimensionality, technological standardization and globalization, a state of depression, apathy or impatience, a literal collapsing of depth, a poor image, etc.

The event was further hindered by a few too many technical glitches, a canceled performance, and dull digital copies, and one could just as easily deem these to be the very embodiment or essence of the theme—and thus, ironically, an accurate representation of it. The loose curatorial rationale lent itself to a collective desire to dream up alternate approaches, which ultimately points to the pregnant possibilities of the premise and the potency of physical presence inside the cinema. Despite its flaws, the program was not devoid of interesting work, and it included just enough gems to ensure that viewers stuck with it: videos like Richard Serra and Nancy Holt’s Boomerang (1974), John Smith’s still raw and poignant Dirty Pictures (2007), Hito Steyerl twenty-eight-second punchy one-liner, Strike (2010), and Shuji Terayama’s sensual 1977 screen-ripper An Attempt to Describe the Measure of a Man.

But by and large, the festival’s main thrills were to be found elsewhere, especially in the profiles on American artist and experimental filmmaker Luther Price (also a hit at last year’s Whitney Biennial); Paris- and Frankfurt-based, German Super 8 artist Helga Fanderl; and a trio of Croatian directors, Petar Krelja, Zoran Tadić, and Krsto Papić, whose films were shown in prints and digital restorations from the Zagreb Film Archive and Oberhausen’s own collection. Among the standouts of the last group were the utterly endearing 1971 documentary Let Our Voices Be Heard Too, about pirate rural radio stations across the Croatian countryside, and A Little Village Performance (1972), Papić’s portrait of a tiny town’s inaugural beauty contest, which includes some amazingly excruciating and earnest singing performances, unsavory bumpkin stand-up, and, to cap it off, the glummest beauty pageant ever. In just under twenty minutes, the film recalls the raw, awkward wonderment of Jean Eustache’s terrific pageantry two-parter La Rosière de Pessac, from 1968 and 1979.

Helga Fanderl, Geburtstagsfeier (Birthday Fire), 2004, Super 8, black-and-white, 1 minute.

The prolific Fanderl—she’s made upward of six hundred films to date—bestowed a beautiful calm upon the festival with her sublime silent miniatures, radiant in both black-and-white and color. The first program included a selection of Super 8 films made between 1992 and 2009; furtive glimpses of a polar bear taking a plunge, of a lover’s sexy smile, of a still life that breathes and fidgets with vitality, of fireworks exploding near the Eiffel Tower, all rendered with startling immediacy enhanced by the whirring sound of the projector placed at the back of the cinema. Like sketches in a notebook, these shots bore the detectable hand of the artist, as well as her curious and generous vision of the world, surging with sensuality and materiality. Her Mona Lisa (2000) could have been the signature work in the “Flatness” program: a portrait of tourists crowding Leonardo’s iconic painting in the Louvre, their flip-screen digital video cameras multiplying the beguiling muse in a prescient state of mise-en-abymes.

The main event at this year’s festival, however, was, without a doubt, the focus on Price, co-organized with the artist by Light Industry’s Ed Halter. Consisting of three programs of Super 8 and 16-mm films, including an ultrarare double projection of his infamous Sodom, plus a midnight “secret” screening of Clown in a concrete bar located in an unused corner of Oberhausen’s Bahnhof, Price’s films were loud even when silent, eloquent in their bravery and abrasiveness. (He often abrades the celluloid’s sound track, as would an engraver.) Above all, they were vibrantly, resiliently, if painfully, alive. Psychological and aesthetic repair are threaded through the films, with trauma and turmoil branded into their imagery as much as their material, cancerous and uncontained. Disarming in their candor and obsessive rehearsals, they cut to the core and reveal an artist whose love of cinema has given him the strength to deal with the cruelty of life. A portrait of his mother reveals his admiration for Sirkian melodramas, for a Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck–like glamour that defies reality’s vulgar truths. Standing before the ocean in a billowing emerald dress with matching necklace, her hair tied behind a butterfly-printed scarf, and wearing canary-colored sunglasses, Price’s mother transcends home-movie status. With emotional and formal intensity, intimacy and abstraction, Price’s films rendered flatness an implausible state for those of us who turn to the art of cinema for meaning and mystery.

Andréa Picard

The fifty-ninth International Short Film Festival Oberhausen ran May 2–7, 2013.