Theater of Cruelty

The experimentally real

There was a cautious return to key issues at the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival recently.


Term experimental documentary suggests some hesitation, if not doubt, towards the term reality. How can reality itself be captured and represented? What are the right structures, concepts, and patterns when showing reality? The term documentary refers to a "real" event being investigated. So, in one sense, experimental documentary questions our traditionally accepted patterns of reality, presented in logical, homogeneous and narrative structures capable of grasping and representing a reality. In another sense, the experimental documentary can be seen as an illusion, a hint, and – in the best cases – a diminution, guided by simplified intentions.

How can documentaries handle events that, for example, have never been officially documented, either in writing or through audiovisual aids? Is this the limit for true representation?

Experimental narratives. South African filmmaker Simon Gush is challenging such a boundary Invasion. His film recreates eyewitness statements in a simple and cautious way: Actors sit on chairs in an empty, uncomfortable room and read the stories of those who want to remain anonymous. An image of a landscape surrounding an artificial lake is displayed on the screen. The landscape itself is unimportant and difficult to locate. The lyrics are about an attack by the South African military at a resort on a lake in Lesotho, the small kingdom surrounded by South Africa on all sides. Anyone who has the right to use the water in the lake in question is the result of an agreement signed twelve years earlier by representatives of both South Africa and Lesotho and voted in dubious circumstances. The people of Lesotho did not want to lose their water resources to a South African industrial group, and their peaceful resistance was answered with brutal armed attacks. However, in relation to other "world news", this was considered marginal.

Insisting on telling this specific story is, in itself, "experimental", showing the limits of sensitivity to an international public already overwhelmed by violence and daily atrocities. By insisting on a detail, the marginality is questioned.

Experimental documentaries can open up the fabrication of realities.

To reconstruct reality. The experimental reconstruction of reality can consist of simply a collection of emotions and scattered details without any forced suggestions. The focus can simply be reduced to nameless voices that tell their stories beyond specific descriptions of time and place.

I The Separate System British filmmaker Katie Davies demonstrates one example of this approach. Her camera shows only specific details – such as the eyes of someone talking, notes on paper, simple building structures, parking lots and advertisements.

An empty living room is established, and it is this emptiness that forms the main focal point of the narrative.

Davies offers a room for prisoners – most war veterans – who are struggling to find their way back to civil society. Too many years have been spent in an environment where violence was constantly encouraged and practiced. They are poorly prepared for any type of job and lack work ability at all, and with few personal assets they are often distrusted and isolated. Faced with such frustrating situations, it is often just a matter of time before an outbreak of violence occurs in some of these people. The road back to prison can be experienced as coming home; within the prison walls, they have at least some kind of structure in everyday life and obligations to adhere to.

Davies also invites the prisoners to make the final editing of the film. This is also an experimental act: giving away control over one's own film and work. A prisoner describes his military experience as training to become a killing machine; another loss of personal assets such as identity theft. Some express that they dislike talking about their "war experiences," but the desire to remain silent often leads to isolation.

Fabricated facts. Another problem is that experimental documentaries can open up the fabrication of realities. IN Where There Is Fire, There Is Smoke German Volker Köster refers to fresh images from French news broadcasts showing demonstrations – a few days before the European Football Championships in France – against the new labor laws in France. Virtually all national and international media showed footage of a violent attack on a police car. Mainstream reporters routinely referred to the incident, which formed the basis of a statement from police confirming that two policemen had been brutally thrown out of their burning car after an alleged object was thrown into it. This "murderous attack" – as it was soon to be referred to – became an important element in official calls to stay away from these protests.

This year's festival gave the impression of having partially returned to their historical roots.

Another version of what happened is with alternative news outlets and on social media: A person who was in the group of attackers is seen giving an almost imperceptible sign to launch the camera. Then he leads the female police officer away – she seems in no way surprised by his kindness after he carefully knocked on the car window to get the police officers out. The policeman who was struck by the protesters' sticks also received a comforting pat on the shoulder of this person. Köster presents the confrontation from different perspectives, without giving any definitive conclusion; he only brings key information about the political use of the "official" version.

Yes, but ... Unfortunately, this very important work of analytical media criticism and deconstruction of reality was not part of the festival's main program, but only to be found in the section for regional German contributions.

The overwhelming exclusion of social and cultural realities in the former Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen has been criticized, and this now seems to have borne fruit. This year's festival gave the impression of having, in part, returned to their own historical roots: during the Cold War it was at times a political opening for Eastern European and Baltic regions, including Russia, and later an important exhibition venue for politically engaged filmmakers from around the world . At the moment, however, it is the art curators and the gallery system that dominate the festival during the film programs.


Dieter Wieczorek
Dieter Wieczorek
Wieczorek is a critic living in Paris.

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