Not many short film festivals could claim to have been founded ‘above all as a response to fascism’. Oberhausen, however, is an unusual festival in many respects. Based in an unprepossessing town in west Germany, for over 50 years it has pursued its vocation as a ‘way to the neighbour’ – cultural diversity avant la lettre. It lent its name to the legendary Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962, which was a template for New German Cinema, and since the late 1990s, under director Lars Henrik Gass, has embraced short films that have often fallen outside the festival remit.
As well as strands familiar from other film festivals – competition programmes etc. – Oberhausen commissions a ‘special programme’ each year, a series of screenings drawing on both contemporary and historical work selected by a guest curator. The format is unique, and the results have introduced a theoretical and curatorial rigour that is unusual in the world of film festivals; in recent years they have investigated themes of globalization, the image of catastrophe and the collapse of the USSR. This year’s programme, ‘Radical Closure’, curated by the artist Akram Zaatari, focused on the Middle East and the mediation of conflict in the region. The remit was deliberately elastic and the selections eclectic; one screening juxtaposed Walid Raad’s Hostage: The Bachar Tapes (2000) with a real 1980s’ hostage tape and Jean Eustache’s extraordinary Une sale histoire (A Dirty Story, 1977), in which a Parisian man recounts a voyeuristic obsession to an audience of women, only for the whole scene to be repeated with different performers. The programme was most successful at moments such as these, when it confronted the ambiguities of testimony head-on: personal experience played off against the pleasures of repetition and restaging.
Zaatari also chaired a panel in the festival’s new podium discussion strand, which included a fascinatingly unresolved discussion on ‘moving images for sale’ chaired by curator Ian White. The latter panel, addressing the vexed question of the editioning of films and videos, allowed for the continuing estrangement of the art and film worlds to be aired, before the members of both went back to share the buffet at the pleasingly egalitarian festival canteen.
Robert Nelson, one of the festival’s featured artists, was present for some rare screenings of his work, including his magnum opus Hauling Toto Big (1997) – a Gothic-beatnik mash-up of decades of different footage, loosely structured around the travails of a Yukon gold-digger. After one of the screenings Nelson spoke about the vicissitudes of collective viewing, the ways in which a mood can move over a cinema audience contagiously. Indeed the festival’s short, messy, sociable format is a reminder of all the consequent gains and losses – and the differences from the sprawling biennial format. Perhaps the best thing about Oberhausen is that it does not seek to smooth off the edges or to be defensive about its provincial setting – as Gass put it, ‘such marginality would not be possible in Berlin, Cannes or Venice’. Festivals, after all, are celebrations: happy are the margins.