DISPATCH FROM EUROPE: Ten Years Later, Considering the Impact of Dogme 95
by Wendy Mitchell
It’s been 10 years since Lars von Trier made a great proclamation on stage at the Odeon Theatre in Paris, announcing Dogme 95 and The Vows of Chastity. His red fliers boldly opened, “Dogme 95 is a collective of film directors founded in spring 1995, Dogme 95 has the expressed goal of countering ‘certain tendencies’ in the cinema today. Dogme 95 is a rescue action!” The Dogme brothers (von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, and Kristian Levring) instituted vows, restrictions that filmmakers had to follow to become “Dogme certified” — the rules included shooting on location, using hand-held cameras, avoiding genre or period films, not crediting the director, avoiding special lighting, and recording sound only with images. They wanted to get rid of the slickness and the auteur mindset, and to concentrate only on story and acting.
In the 10th year of the movement, the brothers have now given up control of Dogme. They are no longer judging films to see whether they meet criteria, instead they are posting the vows and letting filmmakers figure out for themselves if they qualify. “The result is up to the filmmaker and his or her conscience,” Vinterberg, with a mischievous grin, told a crowd in London last month at a Dogme celebration at the Curzon Soho. In addition to showing faith in fellow filmmakers, Vinterberg said, “It’s also a way of getting over it. It’s been a burden over the years and we can finally let it go.”
The manifesto wasn’t always such a burden. Vinterberg spoke about creating “Festen” (The Celebrationb), the first Dogme film. “It was ironically one of the easiest films I’ve done,” he said. “The vow of chastity made it very easy because it makes your decisions for you.” For instance, when finding the location to serve as the estate where the family will celebrate the patriarch’s 60th birthday with much food, wine, and (supposed) celebration, Vinterberg had to find an estate that actually served the food the actors would be eating.
Looking back on that film now he says it was a “joy ride” and that his biggest challenge was working with vain actors. Perhaps only with hindsight can he look back and laugh at how he had to spend two days recording the music box song that played over the end credits. “It was highly liberating that the responsibility of the film was lying in the rules and the brotherhood. It was all a game we were playing.” It was a game he hasn’t returned to since, of course.
In much the same way the manifesto told directors to forget their egos (I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist!), Vinterberg doesn’t take an egotistical approach to Dogme. “It’s a nice way of thinking about art, creating rules for yourself,” he said. “It’s like a painter saying, ‘I’m only going to use three colors. It’s much more inspirational if you set a frame for your work. We didn’t invent that.”
To celebrate the anniversary (and the liberation?), all 10 Danish Dogme films and several related films are playing this month at the Curzon Soho Cinema in London, programmed by the Danish Film Institute. Just a few blocks from that theater, a stage adaptation of Vinterberg’s “Festen” is continuing its successful run.
Dogme isn’t dead, of course. Dogme #34, Annette K. Olesen‘s Berlinale hit “In Your Hands,” will hit screens in the U.K. later this month from Metrodome, and Newmarket plans a U.S. release. The film is about Anna, a recent theology school graduate who takes a job as a prison priest. Five other films after Olesen’s are self-certified Dogme at the group’s website — those films come from Italy, Denmark, the U.K, the U.S. and Mexico.
The Dogme brothers themselves have clearly moved away from the vows of chastity in their more recent work. “I don’t see evidence that Dogme left any lasting impression on their subsequent work, outside of the fact that Dogme is a diffuse concept and its fingerprints can be seen on almost any film. Vinterberg’s ‘It’s All About Love’ and von Trier’s ‘Dogville’ were very much anti-Dogme films,” said Jack Stevenson, a Denmark-based film journalist and the author of the books “Lars von Trier” (BFI) and “Dogme Uncut” (Santa Monica Press). Vinterberg even told a Danish magazine, “I spit in the face of Dogme,” with his film “It’s All About Love.”
But the question remains if Dogme succeeded in its goals as a “rescue action.” Some magnificent films came out of the movement (Cannes winner “Festen” in particular) and it also helped further the digital video movement. Author Stevenson said, “Ultimately Dogme got people talking and thinking about all these issues again and that may be its greatest accomplishment. It was a needed reality check. In terms of giving us some kind of objective measure to gauge the level of honesty in a film — that is a more complicated question.”
One upshot is the amount of attention that Dogme brought to Danish film — “It has been an amazing advertisement for Danish film out in the wider world,” Stevenson said. That, however, may have backfired because it homogenized what was going on with rising Danish filmmakers.
Of the original brethren, Vinterberg and von Trier are the most active. Vinterberg’s “Dear Wendy,” a provocative anti-gun drama set in rural America, premiered at Sundance to mixed reviews but heavy buzz. Metrodome has U.K. rights, with Wellspring handling the U.S. release. He now says he’s at work on “2 1/2 new film scripts.”
Von Trier seems to be the one continually obsessed with cinema limitations. His “Dogville” eschewed props and traditional sets for chalk outlines and theater staging. He also imposed rules on fellow filmmaker Jorgen Leth for the entertaining documentary about filmmaking exercises, “The Five Obstructions.” Von Trier, in addition to continuing his USA trilogy with “Manderlay,” is now working on a film series called “Advance Party.” Glasgow-based Sigma Films has teamed with Denmark’s Zentropa to co-produce the three films. Von Trier may have learned his lesson from all those Dogme certifications over the years. This time, he conceived the idea and probably won’t have further involvement in the films. Von Trier devised a group of characters that must be used in three feature films, each written by a different director. The three directors selected are each making their feature debuts after successful shorts. They are Andrea Arnold (England, of the Oscar-winning “Wasp”), Mikkel Norgaard (Denmark, “A Weekend Once”), and Morag McKinnon (Scotland, BAFTA winner for “Home”). All three films will be shot in Glasgow using DV on six-week schedules. They will plan to shoot nearly back to back if possible. Arnold is likely to shoot first later this year (she’s already workshopped her script at the Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab).
Producer Carrie Comerford of Sigma Films said of the idea, “When the Advance Party scheme was first thought of, we wanted to find good shorts directors who were going to be first time feature directors.” The only rule of the project is that that all the characters must appear in each of the films. Comerford says that the three directors did decide to meet each other and mull over ideas. “They more or less picked different lead characters, they’ve more or less going for different genres, but that wasn’t specified,” she explained. They will also share a cast, although the actors haven’t been announced.