Opening Speech by Lars Henrik Gass

Dr Lars Henrik Gass

Festival Director International Short Film Festival Oberhausen:

Speech at the opening of the 68th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

4 May 2022, Lichtburg Filmpalast, Oberhausen


The spoken word prevails.


Mr Mayor,

Ms Hankeln,

Members of Parliament, Councillors, Deputies and Mayors,

Supporters and sponsors,

Guests and friends, I welcome you warmly on behalf of the Short Film Festival.


By 9 May, we will have screened around 600 films from over 70 countries, 44 of them online. We expect more than 800 accredited visitors from 72 countries. That is encouraging after all.


That is why today we are thanking you at the beginning, not at the end, because without the reliable support, without the generous guarantees from the city, the state and the federal government, we would not have been able to continue our work at all since the beginning of the pandemic. We would not have been able to host two festivals and, above all, we would not have been able to initiate the structural change of a film festival, as we are currently trying to do. After Oberhausen was the first festival in Germany to present its programmes entirely online in 2020, it is now also the first festival to elevate a sequence of independent analogue and digital offerings to a principle this year. This overturns the belief that a festival must be limited to a place and time.


With the help of your funding, we have been able to implement our ideas for the future of a film festival: that a festival celebrates cinema in one place and simultaneously makes films accessible all over the world. This is another step towards the democratisation of film culture. The "path to the neighbour", which the founders of this festival commissioned us to take, can now also be taken through the internet. At the same time, it is an attempt to develop a new social perspective for film culture at a time when cinema is losing its commercial significance.


We don't know if there is a lasting demand for it. But even those who make money off of it don't know that. Commercial streaming services like Bertelsmann or Spotify are incurring losses; they are betting on market share in the future. Bertelsmann has piled up around 250 million euros in start-up losses; Spotify reported 34 million euros in losses for 2021. We, on the other hand, work with the smallest budgets. But it's not about money here, it's about attitude. We think that the future of festivals lies in hybrid structures. The trade fairs are only beginning to realise that they could develop digital offerings; Art Düsseldorf, for example, just offered digital tours for collectors. Basically, we are running four festivals in a row this year: here on site as usual, plus the digital Festival Channel, where for two months new entries were screening every day, an online edition of the festival with independent competitions, which ended yesterday, as well as "This is Short", an online offering of the European Festival Network, of which we are a founding member. We also don't know whether this offer can be a permanent model for film festivals, but a whole new perspective is emerging on how to properly present films that are no longer made for the cinema, indeed, how to continue to reach all those who can no longer or no longer want to travel to Oberhausen, because even before the pandemic we could see that the climate crisis, evolved types of work and the digital development have had a very significant influence on the travel and leisure preferences of the audience.


For all these reasons, reliability in promotion remains so important. Reliability is not immutability, but the awareness of quality and its results. Thus, the text "Kulturstress" by Nobert Sievers in 2014 in the kulturpolitische mitteilungen still has relevance. Quote: "Stress is (...) a symptom of a partly overheated, certainly underfinanced and deregulated cultural sector, which keeps its room for manoeuvre open by means of more and more programmes and projects and exposes the actors of cultural society to a permanent, tightly timed competition to mobilise as many cultural forces as possible." End of quote. Cultural funding creates a competition for distribution because it generally rejects long-term responsibility and at the same time creates short-term expectations among an ever-growing group of applicants who have to queue up for project funding. On the one hand, it is right and necessary to promote new initiatives, but on the other hand, not feeling responsible for functioning structures and cost increases or the adjustment of fees and salaries, let alone for a concept of quality, causes a systemic problem. The Goethe-Institut, for example, has gone from festival funding by the German Foreign Office, which used to enable people from so-called currency-weak countries to travel to Germany, including children and accompanying persons, to a project logic. It was not logical to enable children to travel to Germany directly and regularly. But it meant something; that is no longer the standard. In Goethe's name, from now on festivals must come up with new original ideas every year to justify funding. Now the question is no longer: Who needs help? but: Who’s going to make the most money?


So, let's talk about quality and access. I would like to see a structural change in film and cultural funding, but above all in cultural policy models, in urban planning and many other areas, especially since there will be no return to familiar standards after the pandemic. In this, the relationship between festivals, cinema and the internet, between film and the other arts, between work, leisure, learning and living, between cultural institutions and the city should also be reconsidered. The German Film Promotion Act, for example, can no longer refinance itself through the exploitation of films at the box office. The federal government's film funding will therefore probably only be able to continue on a tax-financed basis. But if the federal government is to bear the main burden of film and cinema promotion, we must ask how this commitment can be shaped in the interest of the common good. The way we watch films has changed considerably in recent years. Therefore, anti-cyclical, i.e. cultural policy action is necessary in order to keep as many access points open for as many people as possible. This is probably the deeper meaning of the idea of a "culture for all", that Hilmar Hoffmann once called for. In essence, this is a social question, not a cultural one: anyone who sees cinema not only as a business model but as a cultural practice, anyone who wants cinema not only as entertainment within one's own four walls but as a form of public participation, should rethink cultural buildings and urban planning, because the mandate of politics is not to guarantee profitable business with film and cinema, but to secure access to film and cinema culture.


Everyone is talking about film education, but no one is talking about setting up cinema rooms in schools or retirement homes, for example. The Dutch architect Ellen van Loon shows how it can be done differently: She integrated a cinema alongside a rooftop bar in a school in Brighton. Meanwhile, other novel concepts are emerging on how to combine cultural spaces with other functional units in a meaningful way, for example in Paris and Zurich, where cinema spaces have been created in the Paradiso and Signau-Haus hotels where guests can watch film history at will. I don't know of a single similar project in Germany. It is therefore incomprehensible to me why public tenders do not focus more on the connection between working, learning, living and culture. The cinema is perfectly suited for this: the cinema, historically always shaped by the market, could now be reinvented as a cultural edifice for society; the point of origin of cinema could thus be a model for other areas of culture and also an answer to the question: How do we want to live?


Without structural change, there will be a demand problem, for us and others in culture. The singer Christian Gerhaher stated soberly in a newspaper interview that audiences are no longer returning to concert halls and that this is already having a considerable impact on young artists as well. For these reasons, the structural change of cultural institutions and services is a task for the entire state, which the federal government should solve together with municipalities and the Länder. But the opposite is the case: in a remarkable letter, the current Minister of State for Culture informed the signatories of a petition on the issue of film screening, the profession of which is on the brink of extinction, that this concern, the continued existence of cinema, falls within the competence of the Länder, i.e. it is not of national interest.


At the same time, with the pandemic and the war against Ukraine, the systemic pressure of the "historical turning point" is increasing. At present, I have roughly calculated, the federal military budget incurs costs equal to the budget of the Short Film Festival every eight minutes. Therefore, it is not the feuilleton that tells us whose hour has struck, but the article on the front page of a newspaper, for example on 16 March concerning the federal budget with the threatening headline - "Die Stunde der Wahrheit" ("The hour of truth") – from the ever so unemotional FAZ: "The penchant for luxury has manifested itself for years in a continuous growth of all individual budgets (...); the federal government's commissioner for culture and media is already almost half the size of the entire (and ever-growing) chancellery in which it is located. But such excesses are only one side of the coin. On the other is the slant in favour of social spending (...)." End of quote. Culture, like social spending, is thus considered a "luxury" and an "excess" compared to the military budget, which is described as a "core task of the state".


The fact that new standards of the "historical turning point" are upon us can also be seen in the reason given by a newspaper editorial office as to why they no longer report on us: the number of clicks on their webpage had shown that the reports were not sufficiently in demand. In an issue of the infoportal Kultur & Kontroverse, Johannes Franzen provides some basic observations about cultural journalism: On the one hand, the whimsical digital public is a good gauge of what people are interested in. On the other hand, a medium is thus also insidiously drawn to populism that, in turn, can lead to neglecting topics that do not immediately produce a lot of social shares. So, important is what’s in demand. Demand is the drug of all who want to get somewhere, and consumption the easiest solution. But those who want to get somewhere with culture have already lost, because from a factual point of view they would have to replace qualitative standards with quantitative ones. But what is important does not become less important just because no one is looking. The writer Robert Walser wrote about the violinist Paganini: “He played so beautifully because he played as if for no one.” And it can also be beautiful in the cinema when you are alone - especially to save yourself from the zeitgeist.


In the course of the "historical turning point", we are constantly told that we are on "the right side of history". Patriotic duties are being imposed on us everywhere, artists are being subjected to tests of political attitude. Already, the blame is on the post-Cold War rapprochement, to which this festival has probably made one of the most important cultural contributions in German post-war history. It’s aiding and abetting a war of aggression, they say; all this in lockstep, followed by an overbidding competition of explanations, deafening but ineffective in view of the victims one and the other. With a well-subtle explanation, the Short Film Festival could certainly have attracted click-worthy attention. After internal discussions, we decided against announcements and boycotts, because culture only has a social effect when it does not presume to intervene but simply does its job: patiently and uncompromisingly. Helplessness is no reason to blackmail art into submission. My esteemed colleagues at the Diagonale in Graz, the festival of Austrian film, recently described this without using the jargon customary in the industry: "Film festivals are taking Russian films out of their programmes. Artists are being dismissed and excluded from film schools. The unspeakable zeitgeist meets the war! The fact is that war is also being waged with the means of the culture industry. However, let us not confuse this with an abbreviated confessional culture. Let us not equate art and culture with politics (...)." End of quote.


Culture, as we understand it, as it has tradition in this house, does not want to be on the right side of history. The gift of cinema to society is to be forced to perceive what we do not know. That cinema forces us to look is its unique contribution to society. No other art form can do that. Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov's "Soviet Elegy", for me one of the most important films in film history, incidentally in the Short Film Festival's film archive, was shown here for the opening in 2019, at the last festival before the pandemic. This film allows us to understand what happened in the last weeks and months better than all the news, because it shows the decline of the Soviet Union as if in a large tableau.


Short Film Festival, that is 600 times this year a different view of the world that knows not only one story.


I would like to thank you for listening, all the donors and sponsors for their support and, above all, the Short Film Festival team, which has led this festival confidently through one of the most difficult phases since its foundation at any time since March 2020.