Preserving a Way of Life: Heritage and Creation through Film

68th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen Report. By Mina Radovic

The 68th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen featured a compelling range of short films from around the world. The films in competition included human dramas, documentary portraits, dance films, a variety of experimental works and a most intriguing selection of animated films. The connection between the – often very different – films was their innovative approach to film language. The films employed different modes of expression and drew upon a range of devices (incl. POV and abstract narration) and forms (archives, photography, modern art, stop motion, and paper animation). They showed persons and peoples under pressure and the different ways in which they respond, for better or worse.

Two international competitions with their respective unique selection of films featured in Oberhausen’s festival program this year: the international online competition, available for digital streaming, and the international competition, playing in the cinemas of Oberhausen. Furthermore, the festival featured its classic strands of the German competition, the Children’s and Youth Competition, and the NRW Competition designated for showing films from the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany and thus positing an effective platform for promoting local film production alongside its (inter)national counterparts.

One of Oberhausen’s greatest innovations in presenting films, even after the formal close of the festival, was in offering a digital library in which 5000+ films from over 120 countries could be viewed. There were also highlights and retrospectives of films from the festival’s long and enticing history, with a particularly fine one being dedicated to the work of animation pioneer Dušan Vukotić. The Ecumenical Jury was delighted to participate at the festival this year where Oberhausen once again confirmed itself as a place where one can experience a truly diverse breadth of cinematic works and discover new filmmakers, many of whom show a promising future in film.


The Ecumenical Jury was divided into two groups: the present report is based on the films viewed by the Jury of the international online competition. The Ecumenical Jury saw thirty-four films in the main competition and selected the winner and special commendation.

73 (Meshy Koplevitch)

At the 68th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen the Ecumenical Jury of INTERFILM and SIGNIS awarded its Prize to the film 73 by Meshy Koplevitch (Israel, 2021). The film follows a young woman making a film about her father. As the film moves from live action documentary into watercolour animation, a quiet, minimalist and most intimate portrait of her father during the Yom Kippur War unfolds. Free form 2D stick figures pass through an abstract white space with dashes of colour and the water-like transformations of figures, objects, and events creating a dynamic and poetic vision of life. The film reveals the shift from an ordinary day in military service into the outbreak of full-scale war and its effects on various characters caught in the conflict.

Koplevitch achieves depth through great simplicity: through a masterful command of abstract form, she brings out the inner experience of the soul’s response to external warfare. It portrays the ritualised nature of war as a dance of death and shows the depersonalization of man through the powerful image of characters with gas masks, without a face. However, the most original moment of 73 emerges when it displays compassion amidst division. The lead character speaks about being given the duty to guard imprisoned soldiers, who earlier had tried to kill him, as they lie in a pit meshed with one another, half dead. The image of the masked man with wires spiraling out of his head in all directions and the archival shot of actual soldiers accompanies this voiceover in the film’s final moments. While visually showing man’s concrete breakdown through participation in evil, it simultaneously shows the power of love which leads to resurrection, a spiritual renewal most profoundly manifested in the love of our enemies.

Blink in the Desert (Shinobu Soejima)

Furthermore, the Jury awarded the Special Commendation to the film Blink in the Desert by Shinobu Soejima (Japan, 2021). A film which follows the life of a Buddhist monk who lives in the desert in a little hut with a well is transformed with the visit of a butterfly. Once he destroys the creature which he loves, he is tormented by his act: a beautiful scene vividly portrays this tension through the image of the butterfly emerging from his heart.

The film features almost no dialogue and through stop-motion animation connects humans, animals, and insects in a delicate way, creating a synthesis of image and sound. It reflects on human aggression and indifference, showing us our propensity to destroy what we do not know or understand and in the process the agony we inflict on ourselves and the world around us. However, the film also provides a ray of hope when the central character is given the opportunity to nurse a wounded butterfly back to health. He acts with compassion and the final moments of the butterfly flying off restores peace in the monk’s eyes. Blink in the Desert reminds us that healing is to be found in love and though effort is required love can transform us, like the butterfly, in the blink of an eye.  

Virtual Voice (Suzanna Mirghani)/The Raft (Marko Meštrović)

In the process of making our decision we had a series of fruitful discussions on the Jury and saw a number of films from the competition that compelled us with their originality. Through the story of an animate doll, the film Virtual Voice (Suzannah Mirghani, Qatar-Sudan, 2021) speaks about the superficial ‘doll-like’ way we engage with the world around us when we filter our perceptions through the endless streams of information delivered by digital media. It reflects on the dangers of modern man psychologically emptied, isolated, and desperate, and points to the need for breaking from this way of being if we are to respond to the suffering of our fellow man in a meaningful way.

By comparison Marko Meštrović’s The Raft (Croatia, 2021) is a film which speaks about music as a space of refuge amidst the waves of earthly tribulation. The film invokes the visual palette of the graphic novel intermixed with Greek mythology in the river crossing that connects the world of the dead with the world of the living, an existential contrast nicely punctuated by the visual contrast of animation and live action.

Abrir Monte (Open Mountain, Marai Rojas Arias)

In its formal approach one great film in this year’s competition connects well with New Latin American Cinema and opens the door for us as viewers to discover the cultural and cinematic heritage of Colombia. Maria Rojas Arias’s Abrir Monte/Open Mountain (Colombia, 2021) is a beautifully surreal and methodical portrait of the revolution led by a group of shoemakers who sought to improve living and working conditions in Colombia. They called themselves The Bolsheviks of Libano Tolima and their revolution lasted one day: 19 July 1929. The film connects this history with the women of the village today for whom the revolution goes on.

We experience the film in fragments, memories, portraits, stories delivered in experimental pieces come to form the whole picture of a people’s struggle against tyranny and exploitation. However, the most original dimension of the film lies in connecting freedom with prayer and it will be excellent to see the work of Maria Rojas Arias as it develops in the future.

The Dress (Ken Kobland, EJay Sims)

A film which developed the idea of memory is The Dress (USA, 2021) directed by Ken Kobland and EJay Sims. The film opens with the shot of a white dress flowing atop the red-bricked streets of New York City. The story turns into a memory told through the art of sewing and the archive: the story of a lady who moves from Austro-Hungary to the States and becomes a seamstress delineates her journey, her origins in Budapest and her connections with Zagreb and later Yugoslavia, and the life she gained in her new home. The film draws upon archival footage, much of which is photographic, and it speaks about what it means to remember, which is revealed in the film as an inner process as much as it becomes an outer homage to her vocation and the people who lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of March 1911.

La Cour du Roi (The Court of the King, Amédée Pacôme Nkoulou)

The need to preserve values in the face of hypocrisy and a culture of life in the face of tyranny are concerns found at the heart of Amédée Pacôme Nkoulou’s La Cour du Roi/The Court of the King (Gabon, 2021). Nkoulou’s film follows the story of an aging man in urban Gabon who stands up against the corporation which wishes to destroy his life and the city which he loves. The film begins with the shot of a megaphone that looms over the city. The man listens to the speaker who tells them that a company wishes to raze the neighbourhood for its own material use and then proceeds to speak about how important it is that people live in an environmental habitat which is healthy and sustainable.

Through the Metropolis-like composition of the first shot, where symmetry and hierarchy establish a totalitarian visual order, we arrive at a sense of disorder and begin to understand that what we are about to see is a carefully constructed form of control whose chief aim is the exploitation of human souls. The film highlights the hypocrisy of corporate power that seeks to destroy both people’s homes and the environment – and the (in)tangible forms of cultural heritage they bear with them – while masking itself with the pretense that it wishes to preserve them. It epitomizes the struggle of man in the dichotomous image of him who guards his home as an excavator begins its descent.

Bonding Humanity (Perhaps Manifesto) (Nina Bačun)

When it comes to cinematic heritage Nina Bačun's Bonding Humanity (Perhaps Manifesto) (Norway-Croatia-Slovenia, 2021) is an excellent poetic examination of the New Yugoslav Film of the 1960s. By contrasting, restructuring, and blending a range of cinematic works, the film becomes a free-form collage where personal, social, and political contexts meet. The films of Dušan Makavejev, Aleksandar Petrović, and Boštjan Hladnik feature prominently, people’s faces become a beautiful reference point for the director’s reflection, and a striking recontextualization is found in the image of the turtle on the train tracks from Boro Drašković’s classic film Horoscope (Yugoslavia, 1969). All in all, Bačun’s work reveals hidden connections and thus opens new and refreshing ways for understanding a significant chapter in Yugoslav cinema heritage.


The festival programme presented great films which showed a shared concern for preserving love in the face of hatred, community in the face of structured isolationism, and heritage in the face of total destruction. Thus, from the films we arrive at an understanding of heritage in its proper sense: as a way of life and by whose preservation we preserve continuity and the space in which we can create something new.