Not the Size of the Dog in the Fight

06 July 2016

On two film festivals I attended in June 2016.

During the predictably tedious run-up to this year’s Cannes Film Festival, I had an inevitably brief exchange on Twitter sparked by my facetious claim that, contrary to received wisdom that it’s the best of its kind in the world, the event isn’t even the best of its kind in the South of France. The counterargument essentially boiled down to the routine refrain that bigger is better. Since Cannes is the most culturally dominant event in the industry’s calendar year, so the opposing logic went, it is necessarily and quantifiably the greatest. Film quality doesn’t really matter; size and prestige do. I replied only to say that a festival with an annual budget of €20 million has every right to the dubious honour of being the circuit’s most commercially significant festival—which isn't quite the same thing.

For my own money, though, the bigger-better idiom makes more sense when inverted: on an everyday experiential level, better always proves to be bigger. At the beginning of last month I attended two relatively small film festivals, travelling from one to the other. The Hamburg International Short Film Festival (IKFF) has been held 32 times in Germany’s port city. Kino Otok, which takes place in the Slovenian town of Izola on the Adriatic coast, has just celebrated its twelfth edition. At a time when private sponsorship and public subsidies are scarcer than ever, both of these events are to be commended for concentrating their respective resources and finding ways in which to maximise their infrastructural, ecological and architectural surroundings. Both festivals are audience-friendly, public-oriented, sensibly-sized and socially vibrant.

Full disclosure. I am what the festival itself terms a ‘friend’ of Kino Otok. Having first attended in 2014, when I enjoyed among other pleasures the chance to chair a discussion on Galician cinema, I was invited back last year to partake in the festival’s Friends programme, for which otherwise independent guests are asked to screen a work of their choice by a filmmaker (also invited), with whom they might be on friendlier terms than this complicated industry would ordinarily allow. (At least this is how I’ve always interpreted it. You can’t invite just anyone: which filmmaker would I advocate as a programmer-critic and spend time with?)

If there’s a through-line at work here it isn’t entirely conscious: last year I invited Madrid filmmaker Pablo Llorca to screen his compassionately nuanced, austerity-blues drama The Great Leap Forward (2014), while this year I invited Simes-born Eloy Domínguez Serén to screen No Cow On the Ice (2015), a 63-minute feature, and Yellow Brick Road (2015), a 14-minute short. Both filmmakers are fiercely independent creatures. Llorca, born in 1963, is a veteran of dogged self-finance, from the productions themselves to distribution—which might account for why he’s so sorely underappreciated. Domínguez Serén, in comparison, was born in 1985 and is yet to make a feature longer than 70 minutes. Perhaps the most exciting thing a critic can say with sincerity about an artist is that they have not yet made a truly great work: while there is obvious strength in the films Domínguez Serén has made thus far, the deeper thrill for me is the sense of things to come.

The Galician first came to my attention during Kino Otok’s previously mentioned focus on that region’s filmmakers in 2014. On that occasion the festival screened his debut short Pettring, a self-shot diary about his first months living as a construction apprentice in Sweden, 2012. No Cow On the Ice, a more elaborate first-person investigation into identity and belonging, re-stitches the earlier short into its narrative framework, as well as In the New Sky (2014), the director’s ingeniously conceived landscape short about Stockholm’s Ericsson Globe and the shifting urban textures that surround it, which he made as part of a wider project involving other filmmakers interpreting works by the Galician poet Xosé María Díaz Castro.

As I noted in my catalogue text for Otok, this re-stitching is not merely lazy self-plagiarism. The reasons for reincorporating these two very different shorts into a larger whole is that No Cow On the Ice documents Domínguez Serén’s own evolution, across a number of years, in engaging with an appealingly foreign cultural and geographical space. The early years covered in Pettring are as integral to this view as anything that comes after. Having initially moved to Sweden for love, the director stayed there out of a feeling that his increasing affinity to the landscape and its people would always seem incomplete if he didn’t conquer the native language satisfactorily enough.

Here, language and landscape are deeply connected. This is a self-portrait of a young filmmaker on foreign ground, not only investigating new artistic methods for strategising his way through new experiences, but detailing his progress along the way. As we see Domínguez Serén, a Galician far away from home, finally experimenting with a more refined film form against the snowy expanses of a beautiful Scandinavian winter, we might be reminded of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, whose own literary style develops in line with the maturation of its protagonist, from simple, child-like prose to a sophisticated and confident reading of the world.

It’s a good moment to be a Galician filmmaker. Though he’s able to draw upon the built-in collaborative affinities and support networks of his home region, and to benefit from the critical attention given to the likes of Cannes-winner Oliver Laxe, Domínguez Serén is similarly destined to do things his own way. (Laxe lives in Morocco, where he filmed his latest feature Mimosas.) One of the reasons why I chose to screen Yellow Brick Road was that, while No Cow On the Ice feels like a conclusive summary of one period in his artistic career, the short shows an obvious need to branch out, find new adventures. This suitably titled film (there’s no place like home if your home is no place in particular) emerged from the two months the director spent in 2014 working in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, and as a volunteer teacher at the Sahara Film School. One afternoon, he began to film the wrecked shells of old, abandoned automobiles—a ubiquitous part of the desert landscape. “But while I was shooting an old truck,” he notes, “a curious, spirited and sharp little boy showed up in the frame and transformed irrevocably the course of events.”

Domínguez Serén is an engaging speaker, and talks about his work with insight and humour. One of the consistent pleasures of Kino Otok is that it allows filmmakers the space and time in which to properly present and discuss their work. Audiences are informed, attentive, curious; many of them come from Ljubljana, a city that thrives through a close-knit, intergenerational group of experienced cinephiles.

I am reminded here of Shane Danielsen’s lament, in 2011, that “festivals are no longer allowed to be the things they once were: small, local events of curatorial integrity, put on by passionate enthusiasts.” Informed by a state of crisis then engulfing the Edinburgh Film Festival—which he had steered as artistic director from 2002 to 2006—Danielsen’s words apply to a great number of festivals, which come off as unavoidably bloated affairs whose excess space must be filled with an ‘all aboard’ programming policy, whose chief casualties are quality control, brand identity and discriminating taste (e.g. Neil Young on Rotterdam, “the sandwich that became a doughnut”).

Not so Kino Otok. The sense of intimacy and the kinds of discourse that the festival enables is down to good management as much as it is curatorial care, a discerning sense of who makes a good festival guest and who doesn’t, and the ways in which the event embeds itself within the comparatively fixed fabric of Izola as a town. On this latter front, Otok excels: take the complimentary double-punch of the town’s historic Manzioli Square, arranged each evening into an al fresco exhibition space (boosted on closing night by the warm hum of 35mm, a print from Ljubljana’s Kinoteka of Sergei Parajanov’s extraordinary Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors); and the inclusive, democratic social space of the Lighthouse, an open, grassy expanse on which filmmakers, festival staff, visiting attendees and the local public can all mingle.

In Hamburg, where I was a first-time visitor, the festival’s need to adapt to an ever-changing urban topology is especially pronounced. Though its fiction and non-fiction competition screenings are held in nearby cinemas, the festival’s main hub is the Kolbenhof, sited on the grounds of a former foundry owned by Kolbenschmidt, a subsidiary of Rheinmetall that produced aviation, marine and automobile engine pistons on the four-hectare spot between 1935 and 2009. The Kolbenhof is a historic reminder of the now-faded industrial core of Altona, Hamburg’s westernmost district—which was, until 1937, a city in itself.

Since 2010, Kolbenhof’s factory and warehouse buildings have been cohabited by a number of small businesses, and the ease (considerable human labour notwithstanding) with which some of its unoccupied units can be transformed into communal spaces has made it a logical and fitting choice for a film festival that takes pride in combining international reputation and local flavour. These spaces are varied, constituting an indoor bar, an outdoor café area, open-air projection spaces and an exhibition room—whose otherwise unpleasantly stifling heat is counterbalanced by a socially and aesthetically pleasing assortment of seating arrangements, with second-hand upholstery employed to great effect.

This repurposing is an ongoing need. Since the site is undergoing demolition as part of protracted gentrification schemes—with plans of a new mixed-use site that functions residentially as well as commercially—its factory buildings are decreasing in number and diminishing in size by the year. Rather than relocate, the festival adapts: as a canny, shape-shifting enterprise, it is committed to socialising its found, always-altering architecture. One example is the way in which the festival team and its army of volunteers have erected what is in effect a double-decked wall from freighter containers, which marks the open-air boundary of the festival hub. Arranged as such, the containers import an automatic sense of local history onto the event, but they also function architecturally: containing the site and influencing the flow of delegates and attendees, they facilitate encounters that feel mostly spontaneous but never forced.

Some people might not take to this kind of carefully arranged sense of spontaneity and social accident. The frontal, unavoidably open entrance to the festival hub fails to acknowledge the fact that not everyone feels equally confident or comfortable in such environments—which might be perceived as cliquey or counterintuitively closed-off, a cause of anxiety rather than excitement. But while there is something very German about the assumption that everyone’s needs are the same, Hamburg has a peculiarly outgoing charm that, in the context of an artistic-cultural event, proves endearing and infectious. In addition, the festival relies on the hospitality of local residents who, with no guaranteed affiliation to cinema or cinephilia, opt in to accommodate visiting filmmakers during their stay—a smart strategy that is cost-effective for the festival and socially beneficial to delegates and their hosts. On a merely structural level, it helps to integrate the one-off nature of the festival with the more rooted fabric of everyday city life in Hamburg.

One obvious problem, owing to the as-yet-ungentrified nature of the factory buildings, is that the entire upper floors of the Kolbenhof are not yet wheelchair accessible—a double frustration in a city that caters so well to cycling and other means of wheeled transit. The problem is unavoidable, a trade-in for making use of the site as-is, prior to the wholesale facelift that will eventually render it unrecognisable. Indeed, that wheelchair users are not yet able to access some of the upstairs spaces was only noticeable (and staff are quick to note it, with regrets) due to the festival’s otherwise impeccable achievements in recycling this pre-existing space to positive effect.

On the eve of my premature departure for Izola, I was given a preview of the IKFF’s famed ‘35ml Club,’ prior to its official opening during the festival’s closing weekend. Stocked with spirits and schnapps brought by visiting filmmakers and other delegates, this ad hoc setup was this year housed in the abandoned, ground-floor space for what were once the factory workers’ communal showers. Absent other guests during my sneak peek, the room felt like an improvised set from a zombie film—in the best sense. I take it on good authority that the showers still work.

Another way in which the festival’s fluid, adaptive ethos might be summarised is in its creation this year of a viewing platform inside one top-decked freighter container, which looked out across a span of otherwise off-limits rubble, at the opposite end of which guests could, each evening, watch a horizontally expansive four-screen looped installation by Berlin-based Austrian artist Rainer Kohlberger. Last year, this would have been impossible given the assortment of buildings, since demolished, that sat on this particular patch of now-barren land.

I have seen very little of Kohlberger’s work. Of his prize-winning Moon Blink, which I saw in Santiago de Compostela last October, I wrote: “[its] principal concern is… vertical movement. Or at least that's how it seems upon first appearance, as code-generated lines, stretching across the screen, shift upward, like on an analogue television set. As Kohlberger's frequencies change, however, so do the audiovisual textures: Lines become dots, noise becomes music, abstraction becomes narrative—and, due to the imperceptible way in which each molecular element evolves, it's increasingly difficult to discern if we're imagining the changes, imposing our own need for optical fluctuation onto the work, or if the lines really have dissolved into something much fuzzier and more colourful. At any rate, this cleverly conceived idea is an algorithmic delight that demands and elicits unadulterated ocular attention.”

Fitting, then, that my most enjoyable experience in Hamburg in terms of actual films was a programme curated by Kohlberger, which was hosted in the aforementioned, diversely-furnished upstairs room of Kolbenhof (humbly named the ‘NoBudget Hotel’). I sat at the front, prepared for the sauna-like conditions as well as what I presumed would be predominantly abstract viewing material: Kohlberger had programmed eleven shorts vaguely defined as avant-garde and/or computer art, all of which had influenced his own work in some way. Though they weren’t ordered chronologically, they ranged from William Ruttmann’s Opus IV (1925) to Max Hattler’s Sync (2010), by way of Mary Ellen Bute’s Abstronic (1952), Paul Sharits’ T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1968) and Lillian F. Schwartz’s Googolplex (1972), among others.

The best film I saw that night, however, was Sweet Heart (1996) by Kurt Hentschlaeger and Ulf Langheinrich, two Vienna-based visual artists known together as Granular Synthesis since 1991. As their name suggests, Granular Synthesis specialise in audiovisual manipulation, reconfiguring video into newly modulated textures that, over sustained periods, form or tease at fresh narratives. For fifteen intense minutes, Sweet Heart presents a facial close-up of the performance artist Akemi Takeya against a white backdrop: jet-black hair brushed with skull-hugging severity. As the subject embarks upon a performance of some kind, her facial movements—and the sounds emitting from her open mouth—are cut up, cut off, repeated into schizophrenic delirium.

It’s impossible to know the original length of Hentschlaeger and Langheinrich’s shot (was it merely, say, a 30-second video of a single gesture?), but the depth and variety of images, sounds and emotions that their reordering creates is immense. What was presumably a song of some kind—or a reading, or a sigh—becomes a mangled howl, caught on loop. The harmonious lines of the performer’s face are obliterated into a cruddy distortion, a cloud of flesh: a sketch for one panel of a Francis Bacon triptych stretched into digital, frenzied time. Rhythms emerge, the kind of persistent bass drum that aggressively undergirds hard techno. Here, repetition is resistance: a resistance to fixed perception, whose very means is to trap motion so that we perceive it to be fixed. And resistance, when this thing’s coming at you in full swing, is futile. Better is bigger: as I said to my friend, the critic and programmer Pamela Cohn, between two of the other shorts Kohlberger had programmed, “I could watch this kind of thing all night.”

Image captured from a YouTube video of a public installation of 'Sweet Heart'.