Back to 2015


Once upon a time in Oberhausen ...

  • Oberhausen Film Festival audience

Photo: Daniel Gasenzer/Kurzfilmtage

May 2015

Reinhard Wolf has been a programmer at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen since 1991. He is an editor for - the joint short film portal of Oberhausen Festival and AG Kurzfilm, the German Short Film Association. We asked him to blog about the presence of UK shorts at the Oberhausen Festival - and Germany in general.

Oberhausen Film Festival was founded in 1954, and as early as 1958 the festival presented documentary and animation programmes from the UK. One programme was especially important: David Robinson’s Documentary Film from Great Britain, which introduced Lorenza Mazzetti’s Together and Lindsay Anderson’s Every Day Except Christmas with Lorenza Mazzetti present as a festival guest. Those shorts were, of course, pivotal for the Free Cinema movement. And Free Cinema inspired, along with the French Nouvelle Vague, German filmmakers and the later signatories of the Oberhausen manifesto.

In the following decade the focus of the festival shifted geographically – or if you like geopolitically – from Western Europe to the Southern Americas and to the Eastern European countries. Quite often the films selected – and their makers - were regarded as politically inconvenient. Oberhausen became renowned for daringly inviting filmmakers from beyond the Iron Curtain. This made the festival’s fame grow, but it was not just a political move – the films were really good, too! In the late 1950s and early 1960s most jury awards went to East rather than West European film – quite often to young filmmakers at the beginning of later careers. One famous example is Roman Polanski, who won prizes in 1959 (Two Men And A Wardrobe), 1962 and in 1963.

In the wake of ’68 the focus of the festival shifted again. That was also the time of the rise of Film-Makers Coops (Vienna, Hamburg, New York, London etc.) and subsequently a growing interest in experimental filmmaking. In the 1970s there were still tensions between more ideological, political biased currents on one hand, and more aesthetically oriented currents on the other. It was also the time when British filmmakers and British film theory re-appeared on the agenda of the Oberhausen festival. Very soon the festival became really international anyway – with films from all continents, finally also adding Asia to its map.

In its first decades, the Oberhausen festival was pretty much on its own:  it was simply the (West-) German Short Film Festival, with the Leipzig festival on the other side of the wall. They were assigned a significance of almost national importance, and with that came a certain responsibility to select and present the best contemporary films from a quite broad field of genres and styles. That has all changed dramatically since. Today there are about 80 short film festivals annually in Germany. Some are specialised or cater to a certain niche; many of them are small or of regional relevance only. But still, almost every larger city boasts a festival today! In this flourishing festival landscape, paralleled or even caused by the decline of short film screenings in regular cinemas, long established festivals had to re-position themselves – and so did Oberhausen!

Oberhausen today: Artists’ film and video
Now the focus of the Oberhausen festival is on artists’ film and video – a brilliant British term, which has no true equivalent, neither in the German language nor its cinematographic culture. No wonder that British based artists’ film and video now maintain a pole position at this festival! When taking the number of prizes – let’s say in the last 15 years – awarded to films from the UK as a measure, the success is impressive. Here follows a non-exhaustive list:

  • Jayne Parker’s Crystal Aquarium won the Grand Prize in 1997 (and a FIPRESCI mention), as did A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (co-commissioned by Animate Projects) by Thai filmmaker Joe Weerasethakul, in 2009.
  • Other Main Prize winners include Chance by Colombian filmmaker Monica Rubio in 2001, Wasp (Andrea Arnold, 2004) and Monolog (2010) and The Artist (2011), both by Laure Prouvost.
  • Arte Prizes for a European Short Film have gone to: Stationary Music (Jayne Parker, 2005), Dad (Daniel Mulloy, 2007), Bernadette (Duncan Campbell, 2009), and Flag Mountain (2010) by John Smith – who won again for Dad’s Stick (2013).
  • The Ecumenical Jury, too, awarded quite a few British films with prizes and mentions: Home (Morag McKinnon), City Paradise (Gaëlle Denis), Border (Laura Waddington), The Conservatory (Matilda Tristram), Electric Light Wonderland (Susanna Wallin), Yellow Fever (Ng’endo Mukii) and Two Films about Loneliness (Christopher Eales & Will Bishop-Stephens) just last year.

Other filmmakers who received accolades in this period – including awards in the children and youth sections – include Alex Winckler, Becalelis Brodskis, Catriona Craig, Chris Dundon, Corinne Ladeinde, Gillian Wearing, Jonathan Hodgson, Marc Isaacs, Oliver Harrison, Savina Dellicour and Vera Neubauer.

These names indicate a strong affinity to filmmakers who came through the British art-school system. Many of them are today represented by LUX, which had been a constant partner of the festival in promoting artists’ film and video in the last decade.

Oberhausen 2015
This year’s festival line-up includes five new British films in competition: Numb by Ana Tortos, The Lawes of the Marches by Katie Davies, Green Head by Fiona Robertson, Two Clothespins in an Envelope by Susanna Wallin and We Know We Are Just Pixels by Laure Prouvost.

And there is a strong British presence in other sections of the 2015 edition of the festival as well. The Profile section, dedicated to filmmakers who have been important in shaping the short form, features London filmmaker William Raban. Raban, who was manager of London Filmmakers Co-op workshop in the 1970s, first presented work at Oberhausen in 1975, and this celebration of his lifetime’s work includes early, and rarely seen, time-lapse films.

In the Archive section William Fowler, the BFI National Archive’s curator of artists’ moving image, will present three early films by the filmmaker and artist John Maybury. Producer James Mackay will present newly restored Super 8 films by Derek Jarman made between 1972 and 1983.

The British presence in German short film festivals
Since 2008 I have undertaken annual surveys on prizes awarded at major short film festivals (published in the online magazine, based on up to 1500 jury decisions at over 300 festivals and competitions, covering films from about 100 countries. On that database I did some number crunching to find out how films from the UK position themselves in the international field of short film production and succeed on a national level in Germany.

First, the not so good news is that the number of prizes awarded to British shorts declined during that period. In 2008 the UK had to surrender its first-place ranking to Germany, France and the USA. The most accolades by far were bestowed internationally on films made in France (119) and the USA (102). German films received 121 awards, putting them at the top of the list. The United Kingdom followed with 89. In most of the following years the UK only once reached the top three group again (in 2013). British films still reap kudos across the globe, but both festival participation numbers and festival triumphs, possibly also production output, are declining.

But here is the good news: in 2013 the film which accumulated most prizes internationally was the British fiction short The Mass of Men by Gabriel Gauchet. And, compared to successes in other countries, British films are regularly big winners in Germany. In 2013 and 2014 British shorts received about 20 awards at German festivals: UK films do really well in Germany!