This is the first of two parts about the Oberhausen festival. Read Part II here.
‘The More festivals spring up, the more necessary it becomes to strengthen the ability to differentiate’, says the Festival Director of the 57th Oberhausen Short Film Festival, Dr. Lars Henrik Gass. With short films as its defining focus, Oberhausen Film Festival is the longest running of its kind but increasingly distinct and prominent on several fronts. Each year, the festival makes a leap in its curated themes and each year, it maintains its distinct stamp on the very concept of short films. Conceptualized mainly for their length, short films are open for experimentation, innovation and for reasserting their own territory, away from the recognition, the glamour or the attention of the feature-length films. In some parts of the film world, notably in the United States, short films are “calling cards,” as first attempts to make an impression on funders and financiers. In Europe and elsewhere, they acquire broader significance. With its own networks for screening and distribution taking shape, Europe can claim to have revived the short film form as an art form in itself. 57th edition of this short film festival provided a broader awareness of the place of the short film form in film industry and history, in the marketplace and museums and in the age of the new media that seem to re-shape and boost the form in several directions.
The differentiating feature of this year’s programme may be a broad call to re-think and re-instate the importance of short film in film scholarship, art, film practice, new technologies, entrepreneurship and museums, reminding the ever expanding world of film festivals that short films are more than a side bar; they ought to be the centerpiece of our awareness of the changing world. In addition to a series of competition films and events, this year’s event was marked by the thoughtfully put together and presented theme ‘Shooting Animals: A Brief History of Short Animal Film’. The critical and archival value of this programme easily overshadowed the short film competition which contained some achievements, but without offering much in terms of how this year makes significant advances in short films.
Having read about its earlier accomplishments in curated programmes; ‘From the Deep: the Great Experiment 1898-1918’ (2010) on approaches to early cinemas an artifact and a document of film history; ‘Unreal Asia’ (2009) focusing on the filmmakers in South-East Asia, ‘Border-Crossers and Trouble-Makers’ (2008) exploring political short film through film history; I was curious about the “shooting animals” theme this year. While I did manage to get some sampling of the competition films, the entire presentation of its thematic programmes on short animal film appealed to my fundamental belief that film festivals are for nurturing cinephilia and less for marketing and for staging events and spectacles.
While the activities of marketing and funding continued at Oberhausen, the festival programmers organized a series of morning workshop-seminars in its ‘Podium/Festival Space’ highlighting the place of the artist in the age of changing demands for funding and revenue. A series of panel discussions were held under the theme of ‘creative industries and short film commercialisation economies”. It was here that filmmakers and experts exchanged ideas about how to survive making short films in a changing economy and shifting support of the institutions. This was a far more valuable contribution to keeping short film at the center of our thinking than simply providing forum for marketing or event-making.
Between these two achievements, one to remind the audiences of the very nature of the image and the camera’s relationship to its object, exemplified by the ‘Shooting Animals’ programme and the pragmatic meditation on the how short film and film makers who make these works may function in the contemporary culture and economy that marked the broad achievement of this year’s Oberhausen event. It was almost as if the festival was showcasing the current short film production in between the projections for the future, the economy, the art and the culture of making a short film and the meditations on the past, the history of film and its ethics of seeing. Overall, it offered a sharp lesson to programmers to be mindful of its history in the current moment. I want to see these two achievements, one in curated programme on ‘Shooting Animals’ and the other in a series of panel discussions on how short film may find a place in creative industry in two parts.
‘Shooting Animals: A Brief History of Animal Film,’ was curated by Cord Riechelmann, a noted author, biologist and philosopher and Marcel Schwierin, a filmmaker and curator with broad spectrum of achievements to his credit. Theirs was an impressively productive and complementary collaboration, biologist-researcher with an abiding passion in the subject matter and a film curator with broad experience and an eye for discovery. One examined the ethics and the behavior and the other focused on the image. Each of the 11 programmes of short film screenings began with the observations by curators, moving between German and English, offering a veritable wealth of insights from Aristotle to Deleuze on animals and on film history. They proved to be engaging with their talk of curatorial breakthroughs, questions of the archive of the image and an inquiry into relationship between cinema and its object/s. This was an effort in serious curatorship, with long term implications for our thinking about film.
The festival catalog begins with answering the obvious question of the relationship between cinema and the animal. While the great modernist mechanism of observing motion begins with Étienne-Jules Marey (his “shooting gun” camera) and Eadweard Muybridge as they made chickens, rabbits, insects and horses the first objects to be filmed. What began as an experiment soon became a powerful mechanism of capturing and projecting images. History of cinema is a record of how we negotiated the relationship with animals, the first objects of seeing, from sheer curiosity (‘The emergence of cinema coincided with the spread of zoos in the industrialized nations’, observes the catalogue) to the utterly perverse anthropomorphizing in Disney-animation films, and an equally banal proliferation of animal-images in online media, including You Tube. Animals have become actors and have made possible an investigation of a different form of life on this planet in front of the camera as well. Riechelmann and Schwierin observed often that their retrospective on animals and cinema was important as a counter-weight against the banality of the dominant representations of the animal in the media. This was in some ways, a return to the origins of cinema but also an exploration of that relationship which shaped our ways of seeing.
Riechelmann and Schwierin always kept the focus on the relationship between the camera, the animal, and the human agency which meditates and problematizes that relationship. Each programme, with its own sub-theme, was allowed to be seen in the enlarged framework toward the mechanism of human and institutional ethics of seeing, gazing (“shooting”) at the animals. Each presentation also began with a series of images, originally part of the installation on 40 monitors by Christoph Keller, called Encyclopedia Cinematographica (2011), as a backdrop on the screen as the audience was being seated. One watched a series of animals in motion, without any sound, forming the first screen on the minds, making the viewer conscious of their position while taking their seats, an ethically conscious position for what was to follow when the programme began.
The programme themes, entitled variously from ‘About Love’, ‘Catalogue of Birds’, ‘Creature Comforts’, ‘,Theater of Animals’, and ‘Conditioned Reflexes in Animals’, brought impressive audiences, often acquiring seminar-like impression with energetic Q & A sessions. The tone was often set by the introductions themselves. Riechelmann and Schwierin observed early that until 1960’s, the camera was less self-conscious of itself; the animals were simply objects to be seen and used for amusement of the viewers. Sometime in that decade the relationship shifted to a state of reciprocity which then fed the artistic explorations by filmmakers. Peter Kubelka’s remarkable Our Trip to Africa (Unsere Africareise, 1966) shifts the merely exploratory nature of seeing animals into a powerful reflective posture as our gaze onto the animal world merges into the same dominant relationship with the colonized; one replicates the other. Chen Sheinberg’s Blue Eyes (2008) holds the camera on a Praying Mantis as it devours another member of its own species. The maddeningly sharp and beautiful eyes stop the meticulous nibbling of the dead insect and stares straight into the lens, as if completely aware of the intruder-viewer and after a moment, returns to its own act. The viewer becomes eerily aware that it is now the object of the gaze. The world of the other has returned its gaze! This was a favorite point of the curators, one that continued in various ways through their presentations. In Chen Sheinberg’s 1998 work, Pirkus, a stag beetle struggles on its back to gain its rightful position as the camera-lens zeroes in with its large micro view. We see the imagination of Kafka, Riechelmann noted, and the struggle visualizing agony in his novel. It is a troubling moment of imagination and recognition, the human refuses to intervene in a condition that appears to require relief for the beetle. With a sharp recording of the sound of the beetle, what could well be interpreted by the equally helpless spectator to be cry for help; the film sums of some of the major problematic of ‘shooting animals’; how could we possibly reflect or correct the essentially violent and unethical relationship between the human and the animal which seems to be only aggravated by the intrusions of the camera.
This relationship between the humans and the animals is most powerfully institutionalized in the zoo, presented here in the programme called ‘Creature Comforts’. Neozoon Collective from Germany presented its Das Manteltier (2010), where fur coat wearing robots amuse the visitors who believe that the animals are exotic and puzzling. The brief, 3 minute short sheds light on how presumptuous we are of the world of animals, for we encase them in cages, getting us deeper into our delusions not understanding their world. Joanna Rytel’s performance art on the other hand, in her Animal Performance-Monkeys (2002) treats them in that vague realm of either anthropomorphized creatures or entirely mysterious beings whose existence no scientific or human thought can ever fathom. With her back toward the camera, she performs a strip-tease to a group of monkeys in a zoo, whose amusement gives the artist and the viewer either a satisfaction that we have appealed to their senses or appear to them as objects of intrusion like visitors to the zoo.
The idea of ethical relationship implicated in the relationship continued throughout all the festival, from the presentations to the panel presentation in the Festival Space, from the self-consciously ironic naming of the theme (‘Shooting Animals’) to the work and the exchanges of the curators with the attendees. In one of the energetic exchanges with the audience, Cord Riechelmann stated that the world of the animals is not symbolic and that there is no irony in ‘their world’. It is an unknown world that bears its own conceptions, offering us only moments of philosophical reflections. John Berger and Jacques Derrida reminded us of this relationship, of the very purpose of looking at animals, how it allows us to define ourselves far more than it fulfills our ambition to understand their world. In my conversation with Cord Riechelmann and Marcel Schwierin, they elaborated that it is important to reflect on this encounter between the camera and the animal. Cord Riechelmann thought there is much to be gained from Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of ‘becoming-animal’ to (attempt to) gain a perspective of the other that is otherwise not easily accessible to us. One of the starting ways to grasp this was offered in Nieto’s Capucine (2009), in which a monkey shows an ingenuous deftness in using a camera, to gain a perspective that the humans giving life to that machine cannot offer. Not entirely different from the experiments that that the visual anthropologists have done with marginal communities that were outside of our technological culture, the film shows how animals could well give a different bodily orientation to our way of seeing. The ethics of seeing here is embodied; the way we see has much to do with the capabilities of the bodies we inhabit; we treat animals with full awareness of the vulnerabilities of our bodies in front of them, ruthless at times and kind at another, arrogated toward their existence in some and self-consciously humble at others.
Both curators were also in agreement that Institutional structures don’t recognize this meditative posture of philosophers or ethicists. We have literally shot animals and shamelessly turned our machines on to them to rigid ways of seeing. Kurt Blank Kubla’s Small Scale Warfare (Kleinkrieg,1938) shows the ruthless attitude toward extermination of animal species (stag beetle), a film that becomes ominous in view of German history and the rhetoric and the means to eliminate the insect foretell the fate that was to be brought upon humans who were considered to be ‘just-like-animals’. A number of such propagandist or educational documentaries featured in these programmes, invoking a number of ways in which we have attempted to understand and control the world of these species. The very first programme of this theme, ‘Swallows on a Spit’ sets the stage for early films which underscored the ethics of seeing animals as objects to be conquered, often with the slaves and colonized as not-too-distinct elements of the backdrop. From Pathe’s 1914 clip, His Highness Goes Pheasant Hunting (Cour du Grand-Duc de Schwerin de Mecklembourg – Son Altesse à la chasse au faisan / Court of the Grand Duke of Mecklembourg-Schwerin) which reminds us too much of the images of the hunted and the hunter-colonizers that so characterized the early colonial photography to !ko-Bushmen (South Africa, Kalahari)-Contest ‘Hunter and Animal’ (Game of Gestures) [!ko-Buschmänner (Südafrika, Kalahari) – Wettstreit ‘Jäger und Tier’ (Gestenspiel)] which depicts the thin line between how the playfulness of our games shape our hunting instincts and how our hunting habits have become embedded in our playfulness; we witness a spectrum of representing animals that is too narrow and inward looking.
When I asked Cord Riechelmann and Marcel Schwierin about how their own work and the debates, issues and questions they generated among those in attendance could be accessible to others outside of the festival, they both chuckled. They were focused on the aims in front of them while as an attendee-cinephile, I was interested in broadening the exposure of their valuable work. Film Festivals have attempted to set the tone for the debates; often arranging seminars like those here at Oberhausen, almost as a counter-attempt to scholarly conferences. While on the other front, the scholarly-academic world is examining the world of film festivals, aided by festival professionals and programmers. The momentary but spectacular events that film festivals have become and the equally transient and isolated that the academic world has been for some time, these are some welcome changes. These two worlds ought to come together more and reflect on their central passion of cinema together. The massive work that goes into festivals, some of it as valuable as this, ought to find ways to reach posterity and broader audiences.
Shekhar Deshpande is Professor and Chair of the Department of Media and Communication at Arcadia University. His main interests are in world cinema, visual cultures and philosophy of film.