Borders, binders, bad behaviour and ballet at Austrian film fest

Short film fans watched 5 very different films at the Austrian Short Film Festival at Hull University last week.  Organised by Theresa Guczogi the films were screened in German with English subtitles and all were nominees at the 2018 Austrian Short Film Awards.  

Two of the films dealt with the prevailing issue of our time, that of border control. I am no expert but it seems to me a lot of focus is put on protecting borders, but far less on supporting that which exists inside them. The pictorial representation of ever-changing borders by Veronika Schubert in In Erster Linie (2016) looks like a series of island archipelagos, drifting across the screen.

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In Erster Linie by Veronika Schubert http://www.sternstudio.at/sternstudio-schubert.html

The 6 minute film is actually made up of 3000 engraved pieces of glass, showing the movement of clouds in time lapse. The soundtrack comprises of various politicians and media figures making indefinite statements, around what the the govt should be doing, to tackle the refugee crisis. The politics mirroring the sense of confusion and frustration, felt by the population, at the Austrian government’s inability to act.    

The grainy quality of the image brings to mind the word ‘swarm’ used by former British PM David Cameron, when describing migrants trying to reach Britain.

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Spielfeld: Caroline Spreitzenbart/ Kristina Schranz

The second of the two films looking at migration is Spielfeld (2017) a documentary by Kristina Schranz and Caroline Spreitzenbart.  Spielfeld is the name of a small town in Austria that throughout history, has found itself the focus of migrating communities.

Spielfeld gives voice to the residents’ fears and anxieties, during the refugee crisis in 2015 as up to 4000 people a day – quadrupling the town’s population daily – crossed the Slovenian border into Austria.  While interviewing a border control officer on the practicalities of processing the incomers, the camera pans into purpose-built canvas structures that look like the enclosures for holding cattle not people.

Spielfeld (2)The small town nature is conveyed, through shots of residents quietly watering plants in gardens and the selection of interviewees. There’s a market trader selling fireworks bemoaning the decline in local trade, the hotel owner describing how customer numbers dwindled almost overnight. Seeing the plight of the refugees, particularly the women and children, the cafe owner describes how she and her staff, donated food to help feed them.

It is a story about the impact and resilience of a small community that has, numerous times throughout history, served as a bottleneck for the mass movement of people. Older residents discussing the influx of newcomers, make comparisons to the guest worker programme of the 1960s/70s when Turkish migrants crossed the border at the same point, to fill the gap in the labour market. An aerial shot of the border fence running right along the edge of the tree line, later revealed to be full of gaps, adds to a sense of lawlessness in this no man’s land between Austria and Slovenia.

There’s more than a whiff of strong nationalist feeling as a demonstration takes place at the side of the road, it is hard not to feel that the people of Spielfeld, are just waiting for the next time their home, becomes the backdrop for global events.

The third film All The Tired Horses (2017) by Sebastian Mayr was my favourite of the evening, despite taking the title from what is largely considered to be one of the worst songs written by Bob Dylan. After the first two serious films, a comedy provided welcome relief in the programme.

Largely set around a Viennese dinner table two couples, Alice and Jonas plus Daniel and Victoria – who haven’t met previously – are pushed together by circumstance. It is a comedy of manners, a clash of different societies, tastes and outlooks on life. The hosts try to maintain civility but all comes crashing down with a series of deliciously uncomfortable inquisitions over monogamy, the attraction of Berlin and the legitimacy of dating apps. It’s terribly funny watching the dinner guests put their foot right in it, time and again. I believe the kids would say #cringe.   

Mathias by Ciara Stern is a short drama following a trans man coming to terms with his new identity, a new job and the changing nature of the relationship with girlfriend Marie. Seeing a trans narrative on screen is still comparatively rare, even more so the female to male experience.

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Gregor Kohlhofer in Mathias: Ciara Stern

Director Ciara Stern handles the subject matter sensitively, albeit a little simplistically. The thing that storytellers still need to grasp about trans, is that one size doesn’t fit all: there isn’t just one kind of narrative, there are as many as there are people who identify as trans.

Mathias played by Gregor Kohlhofer, behaves in such a way that feeds the male stereotype: strengthening the binary rather than taking an opportunity to explore trans further. The warehouse scenes become increasingly uncomfortable viewing as Mathias’ previous life, threatens to spill into his new one. The machismo behaviour in the warehouse, the locker room talk all adding to the sense that there is trouble brewing for Mathias.

The girlfriend character Marie, played by Magdalena Wabitsch, adds an emotional layer to the story, the question over how they will stay together – given Mathias’ transitioning – providing tension between the two. The previous lesbian relationship isn’t afforded the same importance as Mathias’ transformational journey. Mathias feels like an important film, that succeeds in avoiding some of the tropes and pitfalls of the genre – should there even be a genre? – and justifiably won Best Short Film at the 2018 Austrian Film Awards.

The final film of the evening is RHAPSODARIDDIM by Jessica Hausner. A low-budget indie film depicting a middle-aged man in leg warmers dancing in a sports hall. The soundtrack is part of a poem by Markus Binder. You can enjoy it again below. Anyone wish to translate its meaning for me?

The film festival was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Austrian Cultural Forum London, the Academy of Austrian Films and the Austrian Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

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Filed under #projectqueer, Art blogs, film, politics

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