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Trump-Era Documentaries: How a New Age of Political Anxieties Is Echoing Around the World

The question of where to draw the line between fact and fiction feels more important than ever. It was a recurring theme at the latest edition of the international documentary showcase CPH: DOX.

Kellyanne Conway in an image used to promote “Alternative Facts: The Steve Bannon Reality Show” at CPH: DOX

Sergei Eisenstein. Leni Riefenstahl. Michael Moore. Steve Bannon? At an event entitled “Alternative Facts: The Steve Bannon Reality Show” on the opening weekend of the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival (CPH:DOX), writer and host Lars Trier Mogensen argued that Trump’s chief strategist might just be the most influential filmmaker among these titans of polemical documentary. A year ago, that claim might have seemed far-fetched.

Back then, the young crowd now packed into the “Social Cinema,” a performance hall in festival’s new center Kunsthal Charlottenborg, had likely never heard of this alt-right auteur. Lounging on stylish sofas, they were willing to sit through nine tedious Bannon trailers and a two-hour analysis of populism and propaganda with a Princeton professor, political scientist Jan-Werner Müller, and artist Christian von Borries. Given Bannon’s disdain for factual integrity, it would be hard to claim that his 90-minute political screeds could even be called documentaries.

READ MORE: Stephen K. Bannon’s Indie Film Career Contradicts His Alt-Right Vision

But the question of where to draw the line between fact and fiction in political documentaries feels more important than ever for a festival founded on resisting traditional definitions of nonfiction. Since its inception in 2004 (coincidentally the same year as Bannon’s debut), CPH:DOX has regarded itself as a kind of nonfiction laboratory, often screening films that, for all intents and purposes, are purely fiction. It’s safe to say that CPH is the only documentary festival that screened Harmony Korine’s found-object punk classic “Trash Humpers” and awarded it the top prize.

That was back in 2009 when CPH:DOX still considered itself an upstart. Having reached critical mass since then, the festival took a time out and went on hiatus in 2016 in order to revamp. Shifting to a new spring time slot that puts it ahead of other prime European doc fests, this adventurous 11-day event, which now boasts more than 200 films and 75 premieres, has completed its metamorphosis into one of Europe’s biggest and best showcases. The 13th edition, which concluded this past weekend, promised to confront “the complete transformation of our common reality and current world order, which the election of Trump and Brexit have accelerated.”

That’s a tall order, but the festival delivered on several levels. Here are some of the highlights.

Trump In Context

Programs like “Power to the People,” which explored the rise of populism, and “The Future is Not What It Used to Be,” which pondered documentary’s relationship to futurity offered creative attempts to make programming hyper-topical. This year’s guest curator Anohni, whose disco eco-disaster album “Hopelessness” was the perfect soundtrack to 2016, organized a selection of queer and underground cinema that placed Trump in a historical continuum that included the AIDS crisis and 9/11. Films like “Pink Flamingos” and “Hail the New Puritan” were reminders that artists, once upon a time, operated as outsiders fighting bad politics with “bad taste.”

collisions vr

“Collisions”

Politics infiltrated the festival’s high-tech offerings. The VR Cinema offered the alone-together experience of sitting in a room with strangers all wearing headsets, but the projects on display mostly revealed a format still in its infancy. However, it was the viewer who was forced to take the perspective of a premature infant being tended to by anxious parents in the jarring “La vie à venir.” The more rewarding “Collisions,” which took the viewer to Western Australia to meet indigenous elders, demonstrated how verité documentary applied to VR can, at times, create an uncanny sense of intimacy between viewer and subject.

For a more collective experience, there was the “The Maribor Uprisings: A Live Participatory Film” screening in the “Social Cinema.” Using crowd-sourced footage of a Slovenian protest against political corruption, the “film” required viewers to vote on which path to follow at certain narrative junctures. Hold a sign peacefully or follow the crazed man with garbage can? Unsurprisingly, decisions were motivated more by voyeuristic desires (let’s follow the drama!) than by ethical concerns. While the binary propositions suggested a weakness in the project’s conception (life has many more options), they also pointed to the way these conflicting impulses shape the unruly dynamics of direct-action protest.

A new multi-prong initiative aimed at bolstering documentary’s relationship with science could be read as a post-Trump gesture to recalibrate the festival’s reputation for privileging art over fact. In the compelling performance “Tindersticks vs. ‘Minute Bodies,” the influential British chamber pop band performed a live score to a collection of films by turn-of-the-century British naturalist F. Percy Smith reedited by Stuart Staples, the band’s leader. Smith was a pioneer in the use of microscopes to film natural phenomena, and while he never considered these utterly beguiling and oddly emotional time-lapse gems to be works of art, they most certainly are.

Views From the Frontlines

Smith held the world up for close examination, and in doing so, revealed mysteries we never knew existed. It’s what most documentarians hope to do. Tine Fischer, the festival’s director, suggested that a new urgency is fueling filmmakers post-Trump to wield their cameras to bare witness. “It’s like the 1960s or 70s,” she said. Recording political conflict, however, is never simple observation. “Last Men in Aleppo,” winner of the festival’s main competition DOX:AWARD, was hailed as a mighty document of the Syrian crisis but also criticized for its highly subjective portrayal of the White Helmets.

Documentaries—especially political ones—often have an implicit goal to teach us something. Guido Hendrix’s “Stranger in Paradise” uses the classroom as both a formal device and dramatic conceit. The issue at hand is Europe’s immigration crisis. After a cosmic prologue establishing the conflict between hegemony and subaltern, we see a white actor (Valentijn Dhaenens) lecture hopeful immigrants, first as a hardline right-winger discouraging their entrance and then as a leftist advocating for reparations and open borders. Hendrix’s confrontational film is a clever and cruel pedagogical tool. Its depiction of the absurd incompatibility of these worldviews argues for that most unpopular of solutions—compromise.

Of course, not all political documentaries are such blunt instruments. Austin Lynch’s formalist “Gray House” mixes abstraction and documentary in its depiction of alienation and the American landscape. The film is nonhierarchical in its dread-filled presentation: people, places, and things all carry the same dramatic weight. We move from actor Denis Levant as a fisherman to a North Dakota oil field, a woman’s prison in Oregon, and a vacated house in the Hollywood Hills. It was hard not to ponder whether the white working class subjects we see interviewed here might be the victims or benefactors of Trump’s new America.

purge this land documentary

“Purge This Land”

Close-Up on Populism

If Lynch’s film avoids telling us what to think, Lee Anne Schmitt’s “Purge This Land” tells us exactly what she—a white woman whose partner is black—is thinking and feeling. Schmitt’s captivating voice-over, which interweaves the story of abolitionist John Brown, episodes of racial violence, and glimpses into her personal life, are accompanied by vacated views of Detroit, Chicago, Virginia, and California. Shooting on 16mm, these contemporary images, like her narrative, feel outside of time. Her point, of course, is that historical pain is present everywhere we look in America, even if we don’t see it. She dedicates the film to her son and it’s precisely this subjectivity that lends the film its political punch.

Of course, America doesn’t have a monopoly on populist turmoil. In “Les Habitons,” veteran French filmmaker Raymond Depardon hits the road to take the country’s temperature. In different towns, he invites pairs of strangers inside his caravan to talk about whatever they wish. The results are quietly extraordinary. The private exchanges demonstrate how politics are reflected in our most intimate relationships. Again and again, we see relatives, friends, and lovers grappling with money, divorce, tradition, racism, and alienation. Shooting on 35mm, it also looks unlike anything we’re used to seeing in documentary today.

Depardon’s film offers a series of snapshots that never promises to be comprehensive. But the egalitarian space of the caravan was one of the few places of light in the otherwise dark landscape rendered by political documentaries today.

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