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    Memories of Oberhausen

    By Wolfgang J. Ruf | February 28, 2012

    Oberhausen 1962 press conference, photo courtesy oberhausener-manifest.com

    Oberhausen 1962 press conference, photo courtesy oberhausener-manifest.com

    “The old film is dead. We believe in the new one.”

    On 28 February 1962, at the 8th West German Short Film Festival in Oberhausen, 26 West German filmmakers proclaimed the Oberhausen Manifesto. This moment marked a milestone in the development of German cinema – never before, and never again, would a break with existing production conditions be demanded, and induced, with such vehemence.

    On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Oberhausen Manifesto, the project “Provoking Reality – 50 Years of the Oberhausen Manifesto” provides a concrete basis for addressing this proclamation and related 1960s movements aiming at cinematic, cultural and political renewal in Germany. www.oberhausener-manifest.com

    In our recent print issue of KINO – German Film No. 102 Wolfgang J. Ruf shared his memories on his own ten years lasting run as director of the West German Short Film Festival in Oberhausen from 1975 till 1985. Although more than a decade after the initial Manifesto’s proclamation his Memories of Oberhausen underlines the extraordinary impact of this event. Dear Wolfgang Ruf, thank you very much for your most appreciated contribution! — ed.

    In 1982 Ive been invited by the Indian Film Societies and the Goethe Institute to present in several Indian cities prize-winning films from the Westdeutsche Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, the international festival of short films, which I did manage then since seven years.

    The Oberhausen tour in India was a great success with unbelievable crowded cinemas and even greater venues. One result of this tournee was the opportunity to get in contact with filmmakers beyond Bollywood. At Calcutta the renowned film director Mrinal Sen was really helpful to discover outstanding filmmakers and their work. I remember very vivid when he did invite me for a lunch at a fish restaurant at Calcutta, which was run only by women and seemed to be a refuge for them.  Probably there I met the filmmaker Meera Deewan. Her courageous documentary Gift of Love, a shocking anti-dowry study, was  together with five other films from India which I collected on this trip, the highlight of the Oberhausen festival in 1983. »India never before was repped so well at Oberhausen or other short-film fests,« noted Ron Holloway, who regularly attended the Oberhausen fest, in Variety.

    But the memory of my film tour to India which sticks the most in my mind is a ridiculous anecdote. One evening in New Delhi, Bombay or Pune, when hundreds of cinéastes expected the projection of the films, just after my introducing words a young guy took the micro and asked: »The festivals name, what it means? Is it an Upper House festival?« In embarassement I answered, that Oberhausen ist just the name of the city where the festival is held.

    Anyhow the different aspects of these experiences in India, from the discovering of important films to the bizarre misunderstanding of the festivals name, focus very well the varied and sometimes even inconsistent appearence of this festival.

    A significant misunderstanding was also the opinion that Oberhausen was a red festival. When I came to Oberhausen, from 1970 as a journalist, then as a member of the selection committee and finally as the festivals director, this opinion threatened the festivals real identity.

    In those days of Cold War the adversaries of the festival used this label to discriminate the festivals openess about the filmmakers beyond the Iron Curtain.

    But also those who praised Oberhausen for its progressive profile, as leftish filmmakers and journalists from the west and officials from the east did misunderstand Oberhausens ambition. Both sides have not been really aware that Oberhausen as an independent film event intended to present discriminated and suppressed films from the West as well as from the East.

    Of course the Oberhausen festival did not accept the attempts of West-German authorities to control the programmes with films from the eastern countries. Also Oberhausen did present again and again film makers using the camera as a weapon in the fight for a better world. The retrospective of the revolutionary cinema in Cuba and the director Santiago Alvarez on the jury, both in 1970, may be remembered as significant for those post-1968 years at Oberhausen.

    But Oberhausen did also resist when officials from the East  and there sympathizers tried to influence the festival. I remember very well when the guests of the Moscow film festival were invited for a cruise on the Moscow Canal. Some important looking guys of Goskino, the governmental film authority, asked me to join them in their cabin where they fed me with wodka and caviar – and tried to teach me how the Oberhausen festivals profile should be adjusted. This was a real strange experience.

    The festival had to get through much greater difficulties. The most tragic case happened in 1977, when Poland did cancel its participation.The officials did justify their boycott with the lie that  Ive invited a film, which does not exist. Of course I had seen the outstanding documentary film The Carpenter by Woiciech Wiszniewski, and I suffered when the officials did state their lies at a press conference at Oberhausen – and no journalist from the west did interfere critically. Of course those fights were not made public because the cooperation with the film authorities in the eastern european countries had to go on – if only because the further cooperation with the film makers there.

    Four years later Wiszniewski’s film was presented at Oberhausen. Together with Zbigniew Rybczynskys Tango, the later Oscar winner, The Carpenter won the Grand Prix. Though the Documentary Film Studio at Warsaw had left the copyright mark of the production year 1976 on the films print, nobody at Oberhausen asked about the background. The award was received by the young directors widow because Woijciech Wiszniewski was hit by a deadly heart attack in the age of only 34 a few weeks before he should come to Oberhausen. This I consider as my most tragic memory of Oberhausen.

    An other conflict which even threatened the festivals existence happed in 1981, when the Polish Ambassador intervened in the hope to prevent a broad documentary programme on the Solidarnosc movement. And the programmation of a british Amnesty International documentary with secretly shot pictures from a Gulag camp, Prisoners of Conscience by John Willis, made the Soviets furious. There was a real danger that all eastern european countries would boycott the festival. But the difficult situation has been solved with the unexpected help of Igor F. Maximytschew, the Cultural Attaché of the Soviet embassy at Bonn, who became a few years later Deputy Chief of Mission at the Soviet embassy at Eastern Berlin and played an important part in the case of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the German reunification. Anyway, thanks to his diplomatic assistance the Oberhausen festival could present all films, and the guests from the East made only some soft protests to save their faces.

    The most important personality who helped me to find between 1975 and 1985 nearly always the balance between my head held high and a certain inevitable diplomacy, was Jerzy Bossak (1910 -89), the polish-jewish film professor, who made some outstanding documentaries on the war time and the holocaust, who became an important teacher at the film school at Lodz, where Roman Polanski was among his students and who finally was the Oberhausen festivals most active  president of honor. With his experience and knowledge, his distinctive esprit and irony,  he did encourage me again and again to go on to find ways of understanding on the difficult terrain between West and East. I fear that Bossak today is already forgotten – even at Oberhausen.

    Already such a short look back is awakening so many different aspects on this festival which once was named by the British critic Derek Hill »Mecca of the short film.«

    I cant bring to an end this survey without a reference to the Oberhausen Manifesto, which embeds Oberhausen in the film history, even when the festival itself will not be mentioned. The famous declaration of 26 young german filmmakers, ending with the words »The old film is dead. We believe in the new one« celebrates in 2012 its 50th anniversary.

    Though only a few of the 26 became important directors of the Neuer Deutscher Film, as Alexander Kluge, Edgar Reitz or Peter Schamoni, »this was the clarion-call of New German Cinema, the moment chosen by Junger Deutscher Film directors to step into the international spotlight,« as Ronald and Dorothea Holloway stated in their book O. is for Oberhausen, which they wrote on the festivals behalf in 1979. This book which covers the first 25 years of the Oberhausen festival is still today worth reading. Probably because it gives the most complete and accurate description of the many different ambitions and dreams which formed this festival over this period rich of political tensions and artistic developments.

    The Oberhausen Manifesto was not initiated by the festival. But the young German filmmakers assembled there because the Oberhausen festival was considered then as a really independent meeting place for filmmakers. Looking back Im qiet sure that this indenpendence, which the festival had to defend year by year against adversaries and false friends from different sides, is the consistent soul of the festival years which I remember as a visitor and finally as its director.

    Topics: German Film, International Reports, KINO #102 Berlinale 2012 Issue, Misc. |

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