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Hamburg Can be Proud of its Short Film Festival
by Becky Tan

Although Hamburg’s short film festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary, it still has a fun feeling of newness, spontaneity. Films show in less-known art house cinemas like Metropolis, Zeise, and 3001. Headquarters move to the old Kolbenhof factory near the Bahrenfeld S-Bahn station. The activity makes the factory come alive, but still it’s a factory which gives it a working-class atmosphere. No need to dress up or even act elegant or superior. There is a laid-back atmosphere of friendship: just some film lovers hanging out.  You can eat and drink, sit with strangers who include you as if you were the important person who could immediately finance their next film. There is the young man who shows up in his dressing gown (“very warm and comfortable, actually”) and quotes thousands of film references. There are the two small girls who come out of the cinema smiling and say, “We went to the movies all by ourselves!” There is the director Sven Schwarz who says, “Hey, Frau Tan!” although he’s only seen me twice. Do you think that the director of the full-length Hamburg film festival has ever admitted knowing me, although I’ve attended his festival as many years as he has – even longer? There is a general happy feeling, a spirit of “we are all in this together, so let’s party” (something which also defines Wacken, the world’s biggest heavy metal festival, which opened shortly afterwards near Hamburg, Germany).  And English seems to be the main language. At least, English-speakers will definitely not feel marginalized. Tickets are reasonable at seven euros a section (of four to ten films, depending on what you choose), or 29 euros for five sections.

This year’s trailer was one of the best I’ve seen. Actually, it just throws words across the screen, but words which prepare you for what you might soon watch:  moon, tree, star, beer, movie, 30 years, hot, love, noise, riot, tree, bury, lion, time,

All of the films are organized into sections: competition with five categories, seven special programs such as Sport or Austria. There were 10 panels or workshops and then there was the children’s festival with similar categories and special events, 35 in all. The complete schedule was on the internet,, but the printed catalog seemed to be easier for me to understand for planning. There is a thick, 200-page, detailed catalog and a handy small schedule which will fit into any shirt pocket.

I went to one of the sections about Sports. Interestingly, only one was a team sport: soccer (quite appropriate this year of course) and about Mezut Özil, age 17, in 2006. Now, he is a well-known member of the German national team which won the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The other “sports” were individual sports: swimming, motorcycle racing, horse-back riding, ballet, and mountain climbing. Each had a personal touch: the ballet dancer was just a child; the motorcyclist almost had a fatal accident. My favorite was about the swimmers; two old, retired, Australian guys, Val and Pete, have been swimming in a lake every morning for the last 17 years. Once a year, they have an “official” race to see who is the fastest. A lot is said in five minutes. 

These days – or maybe it’s always been this way – but it seems that “art” can be anything and an artsy short film can be just little dots on the screen. The winner of the audience prize in the NoBudget section was called Dot Matrix. That’s what it was: just various dots blinking on and off in black and white for almost 17 minutes. There must be something about the technical side which caused moviegoers with more experience than I have to vote it best film. They must have seen something wonderful, while I was blinking blindly and teetering out of the cinema after that one. And it wasn’t the only one of its kind.  There were Traveling Waveforms, Darkroom, Let your Light Shine, 3-Way Flicker, just to name a few. What ever happened to a plot with a beginning and an ending, real people speaking real words for a purpose?  As they said at the award ceremony, “You don’t necessarily need actors anymore.”

Many times I was reminded of Errol Morris’ presentation of Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known – as in: what’s happening here? Even after a Q & A interview, I was not sure if even the director knew – the unknown unknown, perhaps? This happened in Japanese Mojo or We’re different Now, just to name two. Did the director even know the meaning? Even after a Q & A I was none the wiser. Perhaps short films can be more avant garde, take more risks, since any viewer can watch nothing for five minutes in the hopes that something will happen and the director is not dependent on a huge box office return.

The audience was right at least in selecting one film, though: Drei Experten drehen auf (Three Experts Turn up the Heat) by Volker Heymann. Here three men sit at a table in their garden house and talk about green energy in a German accent of which I only understood half. It wasn’t until later that I realized that all three men were Heymann himself, accompanied by a snail in a glass. Luckily, there were English subtitles. You can watch this film on YouTube, although without the subtitles.

YouTube is an excellent possibility to relive the Short Film Festival and to catch up on what you might have missed, for example, Jon Frickey from Stade. His mom is a film critic colleague. He was born 1979 in Stade where he grew up. He received a degree in communication design in 2004 in Hamburg and works with Tim Penzek in their company called SFA. Watch at least the trailer of his short-film candidate, called Michelle’s Sacrifice (Michelles Opfer) on YouTube.