Short Report: VIS 2016: Fear is Not an Option

May is not only the month of Cannes, it is also the month of VIS (Vienna Independent Shorts), the largest short film festival in Austria.

VIS started as a students’ project in 2004. Several Viennese institutions active in the promotion of short films arranged one day a one-week event. The festival program consisted of 125 short films. Since 2005, the festival is hosted by the Independent Cinema Association, which was founded by the organizers of the first festival edition. For the first time, an international competition with sixty-four films was held. Annually recurring festival events that were introduced that year include a retrospective of the University of Applied Arts Vienna and a Kino Kabaret. Ever since its inception, the mission of VIS has been to mirror Roland Barthes’ philosophy that short film is a form of presence that leaves nothing else to say than “This is it!”, capturing “life in its minutiae, its tenuity in the sense of all that’s slight, insubstantial, inconsequential”. VIS has been “capturing” precisely that by putting together a daring program showcasing international shorts and always offering experiences inside and outside movie theaters, presenting the new and the old in a lively way and showing connections within. VIS’ objective is, according to its artistic director, Daniel Ebner, to create tension and encourage fantasies, pique people’s curiosity, incite discussions and “generate the desire for short films”. For him, the experience of watching a film does not end with the credits rolling while the festival represents enrichment for both the local audience and the international community of short film directors.

During its 13th edition, VIS celebrated the unique set of circumstances that is a festival – again in the opinion of Ebner – “a mixture of artistic concentration and artificial complexity, of local roots and international integration, an experiment – happy laboratory and a communicative stage”. In this year’s prologue, he wrote that “the economic crisis has turned out to be a permanent systemic phenomenon, the fear of terrorist attacks has become an everyday part of society, and hysterical exclusion seems to be the only political platform around”. According to him, when the exception becomes the norm it is rarely a good sign, as history and many of the films in this year’s competition point out. Using this year’s focus “Fear Is Not an Option”, VIS advisedly confronted fear and anxiety with seven optimistic and hopeful film programs.

The 2016 edition of VIS kicked off on 25 May with an Opening Ceremony hosted by Anna-Katharina Laggner at Gartenbaukino and the screening of six short films [“Hopptornet” by Maximilen Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson (2016); “#YA” by Florencia Rovlich and Ygor Gama (2015); “God of Ghosts/Nu Renegade” by Florian Pochlatko (2015); Bill Plympton’s “The Simpsons – Beware My Cheating Bart” (2012); Réka Busci’s “Love” (2016) and “The Heart of the World” by Guy Maddin (2000)].

So, for a week and for the thirteenth time, the city of Vienna turned into a fear-free zone, influenced by international films with a length of no more than 30 minutes, and had a clear political statement. Indeed, the audience could enjoy a total of 346 short films, animations and music videos – 114 as part of four different competition categories.

The Fiction & DocumentaryInternational Competition – section presented smart and powerful films that, using the tools and resources of cinema, examine the world we live in and confront it in new and interesting ways, taking a critical look and political stance, challenging the viewer in terms of form and content, and without being constrained to preexisting notions or genre boundaries. The selected films for this year’s edition took the audience on a journey to jungles in Suriname and beaches in Romania but also into the Syrian civil war and Palestinian refugee camps. The twenty-eight selected works hailed from twenty different countries, thirteen out of which were made by female directors. Indeed, this year’s vibrant program not only showcased festival hits from the past months – from Toronto, to Sundance, Rotterdam and Berlin – but also new voices on the short film festival circuit. According to one of the section’s programmers, Doris Bauer, the documentaries were really strong, “they were a surprise.” Moreover, this year’s jury made up of the film critic Christopher Goodwin, the Sundance programmer Mike Plante and the Viennese art historian, curator and writer Claudia Slanar, handed out the Vienna Short Film Award and the Elfi-Dassanowsky-Award and, for the first time, also nominated a film for the Oscars® long list.

The titles of the six programs in this section come from song texts by, among others, R.E.M., Nancy Sinatra, and the Talking Heads.

The first Fiction & Documentary program was titled “Between Heaven and Hell” and confronted the audience with questions of belief, morality and guilt. It presented the following films: “Figura” by Katarzyna Gondek; “Isabella” by Ross Hogg and Duncan Cowles; Yang Qiu’s “Under the Sun”; Ronny Trocker’s “Summer”; “He Who Eats Children” by Ben Russell and George Todria’s “Lost Village”.

The second Fiction & Documentary program was titled “This Fortress We’ve Made” and was made up of Sélim Azzazi’s “Enemies Within”; “Between a Garden and the Sea” by Ariane Lorrain; “9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo” by Floor van der Meulen and Thomas Vroege and Mahdi Fleifel’s “A Man Returned”.

The title of the third Fiction & Documentary program was “Oh, Life, it’s Bigger Than You” and it showcased five films that tackle the challenge that is life. These were “Edmond” by Nina Gantz; Camille de Leu’s “Ritournelle”; “The Park” by Randa Maroufi; Isabel Pagliai’s “Isabella Morra” and “Overpass” by Patrice Laliberté.

“In My Room I Play a Dangerous Game” was the title of the Fiction & Documentary program number 4 that offered four fictional films with stories of small and bigger crises, family tragedies and grand delusions, un-borns and new borns, aphrodisiacs and hearing aids, about being bedridden and the welcome horror under the bed – and more importantly, always from a woman’s perspective, from very young to ancient. These films were the following: “Slope” by Margarida Lucas; Maimouna Doucouré’s “Mother(s)”; Carlos Segundo’s “I Still Bleed Inside” and “The Beast” by Daina O. Pusić.

The fifth Fiction & Documentary program was titled “Spread Your Wings and Fly Now” and it brought “The Art of Flying” by Jan van IJken; Pedro Lino’s “Her Name”; “Hypothesis and Predictions Based on Theories” by Andreea Păduraru Hristescu; Petr Cerovšek’s “Trails” and Sandro Aguilar’s “Bunker”.

The sixth and last Fiction & Documentary program was titled “Home is Where I Want to Be” and it presented four films about places, people and the ways in which they influence each other. These were the following: “The Place” by Julia Poplawska; Lois Patiño’s “Night Without Distance”; Alex Gerbaulet’s “Shift” and “Quiet Zone” by Karl Lemieux and David Bryant.

The National Competition section displayed the high quality as well as vast diversity of Austrian short filmmaking, offering an international platform to national productions within the festival’s framework. The festival showed 18 fiction, documentary and experimental short films within an art, university and independent context. The three national competition programs attempted to offer a representative cross section through genres and formats while depicting the “crème de la crème” of current film productions: films that touch, inspire, criticize or provoke and whose stories ranged from small and private events to great occurrences steeped in history. The partly informative and partly associative or reflective references to themes in culture, society or politics challenged the viewers to extensively examine current topics. VIS presented works by eight female and fourteen male directors as premieres in the Austrian Competition. “We have all kinds of films and that’s one of the most beautiful things on the one hand and one of the most challenging on the other,” said Alexandra Valent, one of the section’s programmers, of this year’s selection. Furthermore, these Austrian titles had the opportunity to qualify for the Academy Awards® for the first time. The jury of the National Competition was made up of the Vienna-based film critic Andrey Arnold, the programmer of the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, Dan Karo, and the director of the Go Short – International Short Film Festival Nijmegen, Kirsten Ruber.

The title of the first National Competition program was “Power/Games” and in the six films that made it up, various constellations of power were negotiated, often with the use of playful elements – be it in the context of the Cold War or in a feud between brothers in a bath tub, a relationship between an alleged customer and a procurer, or a “monster” and teacher. These films were the following: “Raisa” by Pavel Cuzuioc; Clara Trischler’s “Home is Not a Place”; “Viktor” by Sandra Wollner and Michaela Taschek; Meinhard Rauchensteiner’s “Autumn”; Tim Ellrich’s “The Bathtub” and “Forest of Echoes” by Maria Luz Olivares Capelle.

The second National Competition program was titled “Tunnel/Vision” and was made up of six shorts: “Navigator” by Björn Kämmerer; Armin Thalhammer’s “Cerro Rico: The Sister Mountain”; Claudia Larcher’s “Self”; “Moon Troubles” by Clemens Thurn; Kathrina Daschner’s “Seas of Pearls” and “Rhythm 59” by Aleksey Lapin and Markus Zizenbacher.

The third and last National Competition program was titled “Faith/Leap” and was made up of six films in which the inconceivable becomes audible and the invisible perceptible; perception is guided through technology and challenged by the narrative. Documentary met the experimental, found footage joined forces with stop motion, epistemological interest came face to face with subtle humor. This program consisted of “Ghost Copy” by Christiana Perschon; Tatiana Lecomte’s “A Hellish Noise”; “Desert Bloom” by Peter Kutin and Florian Kindlinger; Paul Wenninger’s “Uncanny Valley”; Sebastian Brameshuber’s “In, Over & Out” and “Ibiza” by Christoph Schwartz and Matthias Peyker.

The two other categories of the Competition program were dedicated to animations and music videos.

The Animation Avantgarde category presented contrary, innovative and critically reflective animations and experimental films. Independent artistic works beyond the trodden paths of the mainstream were shown along with the apparent current trends in this particular genre such as 3D computer animations, suggesting that technological possibilities have become more refined and that interest in the experimental form has also grown in this field. Moreover, painting and drawings were also multifariously represented in this section in which a considerable part of the selected works gets by without language, whereby sound and music become all the more important. The competition for the ASIFA Austria Award mixed newly discovered talents with famous names, building bridges between art and entertainment and offered a rich field of intellectual and sensual inspiration.

The fact that there have already been three editions of music video competitions in the Muvis & Screensessions section showed, according to the programmers Verena Klöckl, Daniel Ebner and Marco Celeghin, that there are just as many ways to approach the short format as there are (sub) genres that have emerged from music history. Indeed, big Hollywood gestures are just as deeply rooted in this year’s selection, the fourth in VIS history, as European Avant-garde or commercialized TV aesthetics. Video clips, once dismissed as advertising media, call for more and more for presentation on the big screen today and both directors and musicians no longer shy away from the challenges of realizing their visions appropriately, something that VIS applauds and supports. With the national and international competition programs and a curated focus program, the festival attempted to show a cross section of the current status quo in music video creation.

For more information on the films in both categories, please visit the festival’s official website.

This year, the spotlight was on the animation legend Bill Plympton and the artist Anouk De Clerq while many special programs and events served to promote an informed dialogue and act as a counterpoint to the fiery formations of constant crisis. As Artists-in-Residence VIS welcomed in Vienna the British animation artist, Peter Millard, who has also created this year’s festival trailer, the Hungarian animation artist, Réka Busci, and the Bosnian film director, Una Gunjak. In June, the German documentary filmmaker Jan Soldat will spend one month at the Q21 of the MuseumsQuartier Wien.

In the face of radicalized discourse after the humanitarian crisis and the subsequent dreadful reactions on the Old Continent, VIS esteemed that people often tend to balance out the surrounding vehemence by being “overly rational and overly didactical” and that when they react emotionally to a situation perceived as potentially threatening they “cannot appeal wholly to pure reason, but must still communicate to people’s humanness and emotional core” and what does Film do, if not precisely that. According to Diana Mereiou, this is what makes Film in general and film festivals in particular an extraordinarily fruitful context. By choosing “Fear is Not an Option” as this year’s subject, VIS does not wish to condemn but rather to try and look for alternative ways to frame the conversation, by facing our fears both individual and collective by looking at the bigger picture of what fear is or can be in certain contexts and by attaching curiosity and optimism to it, like for instance in the Triangle Program organized in cooperation with the Go Short Film Festival and the Festival du nouveau cinéma. In that sense, the festival has been inviting every edition since 2013 two festivals to curate a program in accordance with its motto. This year the honor was bestowed upon the two aforementioned festivals. Together with VIS’ programming contributions, the selections of the Triangle Program are screened at all three festivals, having premiered in Nijmegen in April. It then screened in Vienna and will be shown in Montréal in October. You will find more information on this particular program here.

Within the framework of the VIS Academy, the festival organized its industry event with the support of the Vienna Film Commission. Its purpose is to offer a networking platform to young and established filmmakers alike, with Film & Talk sessions (filmmakers and festival representatives discussed the successful marketing of short films and the creation of value; in regard to the “Fear is Not an Option” focus, curators, filmmakers and media experts tackled the issue of short film as an interface between cinema and journalism; the question of how reality can be grasped artistically was addressed and the artistic potential of animated films was discussed), industry breakfasts, receptions and a location tour around the capital of Austria.

Festivalgoers could experience Film beyond the movie theaters with a presentation of different formats in the Künstlerhaus Passagegallerie such as a video installation titled “Silent Signal” with animated science, the immersion in Virtual Reality as an extension of the Expanded Cinema program and short radio plays for the cinema in our heads called “Kino am Kopf”.

The 13th edition of VIS came to an end on 31 May with an Awards Ceremony held at the METRO Kinokulturhaus. The winners list can be seen here.

VIS 2016 took the current social and political conditions as its starting point and discussed systemic crisis, man-made catastrophes, the pursuit of freedom and the hope for a better life in seven curated programs. In only seven days, VIS managed to bridge the captivating and different aspects of short films and proved that Vienna at the end of May is without a doubt the place to be for international short filmmaking.

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