It's a big year when it comes to anniversaries for documentary film festivals. The grand daddy of European doc fests — the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) — officially kicks off its 25th edition tomorrow. But last week another European documentary festival celebrated an impressive milestone: The Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival — or CPH:DOX — as it's almost exclusively known — turned 10 years old.
It's impressive because of how quickly the festival has grown into a must-stop on the international circuit. It's sort of become to IDFA what SXSW has become to Sundance: A younger, innovative alternative that has gone out of its way to think outside the box since its inception.
This year's festival — which ran November 1-11 in the Danish capital — was no exception. Beyond a well-curated selection of international films — many of which blurred the line between fiction and non-fiction (something the fest is known for — Harmony Korine's "Trash Humpers" won it's top prize a few years back), there was a focus on music (Animal Collective offered an audiovisual live show to send the festival off), gaming (Suvi Andrea Helminen's game developer doc "48 Hour Games" had an interactive screening where the audience actively decided how to follow the film), and unusual exhibition (films were screened at the Copenhagen Zoo and inside the subway system, while another saw a double screening of cycling films "Moon Rider" and "The Road Uphill" powered by audience members on exercise bikes).
Indiewire sat down with CPH:DOX's founder and director Tine Fischer on the festival's last day for a reflective conversation about it's first decade and what it's said about the state of documentary filmmaking.
"There are at least two things that have struck me during these past ten years, and that's concerning the festival itself but also the whole documentary scene," Fischer said. "Since we started — at least in North America and Europe — documentary has become so much more seen, debated about and distributed."
Fischer said that when the festival started, the documentary genre felt closed in on itself in terms of both audience and what's allowed to be produced and how it's being supported.
"I thought there was a much more limited notion of what documentary was," she said. "In the beginning it was difficult to find films that would somehow push the notion of what could be done within that genre. And now I would say things are — in terms of what documentary is — radically different as to what they were 10 years ago. For many years, I was really fighting to support a — let's say — boundary seeking form… trying to push form and methodology into new landscapes. And now it's like something coming together which is a new way of working with form and method and genre, but it's also really a notion of strengtening the DNA of what documentary is as opposed to fiction. Which is not just trying to look like a fiction film but to use the same tools."
She cites Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn's "The Act of Killing" — a Danish co-production that opened the festival — as a great example. "Killing" investigates a often forgotten chapter of Indonesian history by enlisting a group of former killers to re-enact their lives (and deaths) in the style of various genres of American cinema they love.
"That film is going to — I think — change a history in that place of the world," Fischer said. "On opening night when we screened that film there was such a monumental atmosphere after. It was just like 'something is happening now that is for real' but also radically different. It really gave a self-esteem to what one can do when making documentary films but also a huge progress on going on such an endeavour to interfere with history. For me, it's so moving. I was totally overwhelmed that night."
As for the festival itself and how it's managed to grow so substantially in the past decade, Fischer offers a few explanations.
"It's a private initative," Fischer explained. "It's real people that started it, so it's not the Ministry of Culture or the city of Copenhagen or a larger institution inventing a product. It's been fueled by crazy people [laughs]. In the sense that it's a rather small organization and people are working for it in a way that's deeply personal. That is still really at the core of the festival. Of course, it's also grown into being an international platform and hopefully a rather professional organization. But it's still really driven by individuals. It couldn't be done without an extreme devotion to what we do."
Fischer also cited a change in the industry itself that has been crucial to the festival's system of support.
"There's a new generation of filmmakers and producers," she said. "And they have strongly supported the festival from the very early years. Which means we were never fighting to find friends here. We had friends and supporters instantly. And they have been promoting the festival… That part is really important. It's a dialogue or partnership or whatever you want to call it between them and us."
Looking toward the future of the festival, Fischer said she wants to really push the relationship between the film world and the art world.
"Right now we're trying to set up this new platform called 'Art Film' where we could try to involve the contemporary art and visual art worlds with the film world," she said. "To see if we could develop a space where art institutions and art organizations and the more commercial art world could work together with the film industry. It might be that the large art insitutions could help take on that role ensuring that documentary as art and film as art is being developed. In a way, it's very concrete. It's bringing people together that are not together."
Which is in many ways what CPH:DOX has been doing since day one.