The Danish have been making a significant mark in the world of international documentaries these past few years. Despite a population of just over five million people, their output has been astounding, with Anders Østergaard’s “Burma VJ,” Janus Metz Pedersen’s “Armadillo,” Mads Brügger’s “The Red Chapel,” and Pernille Rose Grønkjær’s “The Monastery” just a few of the films that make that clear. Garnering major awards and playing at major film festivals around the world, many of those films began their lives with premieres at CPH: DOX, the country’s major documentary film festival.
This year’s edition – which concluded this weekend – should prove no exception, with a wide variety of up and coming filmmakers giving first looks at innovative and work. But perhaps the film from this year’s fest that is most likely to succeed on the international circuit comes from a filmmaker who has already made her mark there: Eva Mulvad.
In 2006, Mulvad’s “Enemies of Happiness” caught the eyes of film festival programmers around the world. The story of the first Afghan woman ever to enter parliament, the film won scores of awards, most notably the Grand Jury Prize for International Documentary at Sundance and the Silver Wolf at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.
Last week in Copenhagen, Mulvad made it known that she was about to make a return to that circuit with “The Good Life,” a film that explores the lives of a once wealthy Danish mother and daughter now living in relative squalor in Portgual due to some considerable mismanaging of their finances. Affectionately and unabashedly inspired by “Grey Gardens,” “The Good Life” is two parts comedy, one part tragedy, and altogether a deeply personal and endlessly entertaining ode to two characters soon to be beloved by many.
“After making ‘Enemies of Happiness’ and traveling with it I was a bit tired and didn’t know what to do,” Mulvad explained. “I’d always been fascinated with people who are a bit apart from society and live in their own world.”
Mulvad had vaguely heard about the two women that would become “The Good Life” because her friend was actually distantly related to them. But when she happened upon a radio documentary about them when she was driving in her car about three years ago, it was clear that she needed to pursue them as subjects.
“I just had to sit and wait until the documentary ended because I just couldn’t leave that universe,” she said. “From there, I called the journalist behind the radio program and asked it she thought it could be made into a documentary film. She decided to take me to Portugal and introduce me to these women and I’ve coming back and forth a couple of times a year to shoot ever since.”
Mulvad said she was in doubt for quite some time as to whether it could actually work as the documentary she had intended to make.
“I wanted it to be international and have these really universal aspects,” she said. “But it’s a very small and very internal story. It’s two ladies on a sofa arguing. So it was difficult for me having worked with more dramatic stories in the past to trust that this more internal story could reach the level I wanted it to.”
But slowly but surely she came to an understanding of her subjects.
“It became very clear that these two women are very different and their way of dealing with what had happened to them was totally different,” Mulvad said. “The mother’s very realistic and the daughter’s a dreamer. I could just feel that their everyday life had a poetic dimension that I was looking for.”
Before screening “The Good Life” at CPH:DOX last week, Mulvad headed back to Portugal to show the women the film. She was very nervous going in, but found that both women clearly enjoyed seeing themselves on screen.
“They’re intelligent, they are not lost,” Mulvad said. “So they could see themselves from the outside. And they found that it was a funny story. The daughter especially said to me, ‘I didn’t know I was so funny!’ And they could also understand the arguments between them, which get more and more intense as the film goes on. They basically said, ‘our life is like that, so we don’t mind showing it to other people.’ And I think that approach is very brave and very courageous.”
As the film’s debut at CPH:DOX neared, a mere reading of its synopsis had journalists dubbing it the “Danish ‘Grey Gardens.'” Viewing the film confirms the comparison is warranted, and Mulvad is not at all fazed by that.
“I think it is an honor,” Mulvad said. “The Maysles Brothers are some of my favorite filmmakers, and ‘Grey Gardens’ has always been a big inspiration for me. And without that film I think I wouldn’t have trusted that the universe in ‘The Good Life’ could become a good film. The feeling of that film was with me all the time during shooting. So I don’t mind at all if people call it the ‘Danish ‘Grey Gardens.” I’d love that!”