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Thinking Outside The Doc Box: 5 Reasons Why CPH: DOX Sets a New Film Festival Standard

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire November 15, 2010 at 9:47AM

It's only been eight years since the Copenhagen International Film Festival (or CPH: DOX, as it is almost exclusively referred) began its inaugural year. Sandwiched in between the Sheffield Doc/Fest and the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) - essentially the main staples on the European doc fest circuit - the chances of CPH: DOX rising to their ranks in the short time since seemed highly unlikely. But CPH: DOX is not your grandparents' film festival. When Festival Director Tine Fischer was approached with the idea of starting the festival, she said she would become involved under one condition: That CPH: DOX would not accept the box surrounding the idea of the documentary. She wanted a festival that blurred lines of cinematic definition and brought forth something new to the bloated documentary festival circuit. And that's exactly what CPH: DOX became, and part of why programmers, journalists, filmmakers and doc insiders from around the world have made sure to include it on their travel schedules.
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It's only been eight years since the Copenhagen International Film Festival (or CPH: DOX, as it is almost exclusively referred) began its inaugural year. Sandwiched in between the Sheffield Doc/Fest and the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) - essentially the main staples on the European doc fest circuit - the chances of CPH: DOX rising to their ranks in the short time since seemed highly unlikely. But CPH: DOX is not your grandparents' film festival. When Festival Director Tine Fischer was approached with the idea of starting the festival, she said she would become involved under one condition: That CPH: DOX would not accept the box surrounding the idea of the documentary. She wanted a festival that blurred lines of cinematic definition and brought forth something new to the bloated documentary festival circuit. And that's exactly what CPH: DOX became, and part of why programmers, journalists, filmmakers and doc insiders from around the world have made sure to include it on their travel schedules.

But there's more to it than that. The festival came to a close this weekend with an awards ceremony that gave Michelangelo Frammartino's "Le Quattro Volte" its top prize (following last year's "Trash Humpers" as the second consecutive top winner at the festival with a questionable amount of any non-fiction content). What came in the week that preceded those awards was a considerable variety of films, talks and events that continued to allow CPH: DOX to stand apart from the crowd. So instead of a traditional dispatch highlighting the event, it seemed only appropriate given the nature of the festival to recall that week with something that blurs the lines of customary film festival journalism. With that in mind, here's five reasons why CPH: DOX makes it clear that a new film festival standard has been set.

1. The programming is innovative and transgressive.
"You can miss Sheffield or IDFA and still see what you should see at Sundance or Hot Docs or wherever else," one industry insider noted at a festival event. "But there are things at CPH: DOX you will never see anywhere else. And that's very rare."

That statement is probably the truest testament to what CPH: DOX's programming team of Fischer, Niklas K. Engstrom and Mads Mikkelson have managed with the fest. With traditional documentaries really only encompassing a minority of its program, CPH: DOX offers films in a way that suggests how nonfiction storytelling penetrates many different forms of filmmaking and that perhaps boxes should not always control the art of film festival programming.

The range of CPH DOX's main competition - which as noted saw Michelangelo Frammartino's "Le Quattro Volte" take the top prize - makes this all the more clear. "Volte," a visually stunning, almost entirely silent Italian fable that has been a must-see on the festival circuit since its debut in Cannes, is a mediation on life and death told through four connected tales. The jury - which should be noted included this writer - chose the film on the basis of how it showed that the simplest things can be the most profound, acknowledging that it could be called a new type of film: "the mythic documentary."

"It's a big surprise for me to win this award," Frammartino appeared at the ceremony via satellite. "It is a surprise because I didn't know my film was a documentary. I didn't know. But now I do."

A scene from Michelangelo Frammartino's "Le Quattro Volte."

Beyond "Volte," standouts included Clio Barnard's "The Arbor," a remarkable British film that brings a new entry into that country's tradition of social realism through its portrayal of the life of the late Andrea Dunbar, a troubled playwright who worked within that vein herself to write about her experiences in working class Northern England. Barnard takes hundreds of hours of tape recordings with Dunbar's family and friends and hires actors to lipsync them. The result is a stunning achievement that pushes the boundaries of form to explore the cyclical nature of addiction and self-destruction.

Andrei Ujica's forceful, epic "The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu" - which won a special mention in the category - perhaps falls much more in the line of traditional non-fiction storytelling than the former two films, but is no less inventive. The 180 minute film takes thousands of hours of footage taken during Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's 24 year reign. Ujica - who works as an essentially invisible storyteller - lets Ceausescu's own propaganda tell the story (see its simplistically powerful title), and in doing so gives its audience a searing portrayal of an imperative time in Romanian history.

While "Quattro Volte," "The Arbor" and "Nicolae Ceausescu" have all proven themselves on the festival circuit for some time, the program also offered world and international premieres in the form of Mauro Andrizzi's sensitive, affecting "In The Future" (which premiered in Venice in an incomplete form), an episodic and diverse collection of small stories about relationships; Florent Tillon's "Detroit Wild City," a hypnotic visual exploration of Detroit's urban landscape; Khavn La Cruz and Michael Noer's "Son of God," which resulted from the festival's 2009 DOX:LAB program (see #4 later on in this story), Michal Marczak's "The Edge of Russia," a memorable metaphor for modern Russia via a trip to an Arctic Russian army outpost a thousand miles from the nearest tree, and homegrown talent Eva Mulvad's "The Good Life," a sort of Danish "Grey Gardens" that is sure to have a large presence on the doc fest circuit over the next few months (see #2 later in this story).


2. The Danish film industry has the goods to back it up.
Access to a national film industry that has an output worthy of international attention is obviously key to launching a successful film festival. And despite a population of just over five million people, Denmark has a long tradition of cinema greater than its size should allow, from pioneer of the medium Carl Theodor Dreyer, Jr. to more recent examples in feature filmmaking like Bille August, Susanne Bier, Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, Lone Scherfig and Nicolas Winding Refn.

As of the past decade or so, that tradition has extended into documentary. Some of the past few years' most award-winning docs have come from Denmark, including Anders Østergaard's "Burma VJ," Janus Metz Pedersen's "Armadillo," Mads Brügger's "The Red Chapel," Eva Mulvad's "Enemies of Happiness," and Pernille Rose Grønkjær's "The Monastery." Many of those began their festival lives at CPH: DOX, and then went on to win awards at IDFA, Sundance and dozens of festivals thereafter. This has dramatically risen the profile of the festival, and on the flipside to the previous point that CPH: DOX is a festival where one can see films they wouldn't see elsewhere, it's also a festival where you can discover Danish documentaries that will spend the next year winning awards around the world.

Eva Mulvad at her editing studio in Copenhagen. Photo by Peter Knegt.

This year, the best bet for the film at CPH: DOX that will be noted DOX: Award contender "The Good Life," directed by Eva Mulvad, whose "Enemies of Happiness" won the jury prize for international documentary at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Likely to be heading to Sundance again with "Life," Mulvad explores the lives of a once wealthy mother and daughter now living in relative squalor. Affectionately and unabashedly inspired by "Grey Gardens," "The Good Life" is two parts comedy, one part tragedy, and altogether a moving, precise and entertaining ode to two characters soon to be known to many festival goers around the world.

"It's pretty amazing," Mulvad in said of the recent surge of Danish documentaries during an interview with indieWIRE. "And we hope it continues. A lot of the directors are quite young. And there's a lot of them coming up who haven't hit the international scene yet, so I think we have a lot of talent here. And I think it's possible for us to keep it up for a while because there are so many different talents with different skills. You don't see the same thing over and over here... There's a big variation of traditional documentary filmmaking as well as more artistic and experimental filmmaking. I think we have a lot of stuff to offer the world in the future."

Some of those up-and-coming talents were featured in the "Danish:DOX Award" section that highlighted filmmakers presenting either their first or second film.

"This is a really good time to be in this business because there's so much talent around," Vibeke Vogel, board member of the Danish Producers' Association said when handing out the Danish: DOX Award, which rewards the best in filmmaking among new Danish documentarians.

That award was divided between three films, with Jacob Schulsinger's "Fini" garnering a special mention (which resulted in a incredibly precious moment where Schulsinger - who was filming in Iceland - sent his mother and grandmother on stage to accept his award for him), and Jakob Boeskov's "Empire North" and Ada Bligaard Soby's "The Naked of Saint Petersburg." The former - filmed entirely by a cell phone - stars director Boeskov in the lead role as a comics illustrator who decides to relinquish his identity and become his neo-liberal alter ego that develops an ID sniper rifle that becomes a hit in the international arms race. A commentary on 21st century paranoia, it's unlikely to find much of a place on the documentary festival circuit, mainly because most programmers outside of CPH: DOX are not going to view it as non-fiction. But the ingenuity of its approach to political critique should make an impression on the film world nonetheless.

"It is both fascinating and repulsive, absorbing and uncomfortable, compelling and annoying," the jury said when they handed Boeskov the award. "But more than anything, it is strongly personal. From start to end, we see of the will of the filmmaker as he puts himself at stake and takes on the greatest themes of our civilization."

"When I got the news from the beautiful people at the festival that this film was in the competition I said 'Oh no, everybody will think this is a documentary film,'" Boeskov said at the ceremony. "And now its even worse. But I just want to say that I love documentary films, and that I'm not sure this is a documentary film or a fiction film. And maybe I'm reading WIRED Magazine too much but I truly believe that ten or fifteen years in the future there will be no difference between fiction films and documentary films. Our screens and our reality will be the same... It's all merging together."

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Director Hito Steyerl accepts the prize for the New:Vision program. Photo by Peter Knegt

3. CPH:DOX's incorporation of music, art and televison themed work take the "film" out of film festival.
Beyond blurring the lines of documentary and fiction, CPH: DOX also experiments with the idea of categorizing media altogether. A large portion of its programming is devoted to work that takes on music, art, and even television. This is clearly a large part of the reason the festival brings in such abundant audiences. The rich artistic community of Copenhagen views the festival as something that encompasses something larger than the medium of film, and thus CPH: DOX's audience expands well beyond simply lovers of cinema.

The festival's New:Vision program, aims at promoting the experimental documentary that "moves in the borderland between documentary and art." Making Sundance's New Frontiers program look downright traditional, New:Vision saw topics ranging from illegal migration, gay cruising, Snow White, a young woman's LSD trip in the Badlands National Park, the car from "Back To The Future," and a Boeing 707-700 as a metaphor for the economic crisis (in Hito Steyerl's "In Free Fall," which took the program's top prize). And those are just the films where one can actually distinguish a more or less singular subject matter.

The Sound & Vision program, meanwhile, takes on a largely experimental program of music-themed work, including films focusing on Feist, Broken Social Scene, Jose Gonzalez, David Byrne, Brian Eno, Bruce Springsteen and Motorhead frontman Lemmy. That program's top award ended up heading to Dylan Goch and Super Furry Animal frontman Gruff Rhys's "Separado!"

"The film that we've chosen as the winner made such little sense that I had to write down why it was we awarded it," the New:Visions jury joked upon giving "Seperado" its award. "But by making us laugh, a  documentary can draw us into itself, embrace us with its subject and help us to relate to its character. And this film did that."

The film finds the directing duo seeking out find Rhys's music idol and distant relative Rene Griffiths. This manages to bring them all the way to Patagonia, where the film develops into the story of a Welsh family that emigrated to South America that somehow successfully blends science-fiction, folk rock, music history, animation, and classic documentary storytelling.

Artists and musicians also played a role in the festival's actual programming with two programs by guest curators: Harmony Korine (whose "Trash Humpers" won the previous year's top prize), and indie band Animal Collective, who curated a program along with Danny Perez (the director of "ODDSAC," the stunning "visual album" of Animal Collective's work that debuted at Sundance earlier this year). A highlight of Korine's program included "The Blood of Havana," the second of three short films that send one of the disfigured characters from "Trash Humpers" on a trip to Cuba, while Animal Collective and Perez went everywhere from a retrospective screening of Tobe Hooper's 1974 "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" to a collection of shorts from mid-20th century visionary pioneers John and James Whitney.

Beyond this, there was even a program dedicated to televison - Tele:Visions program - which essentially seeks to ask what happens when creative and critical minds are let loose within structural and institutional framework of television. The program included screenings of cult sensations like "Fishing With John," "TV Party," and "The Dick Cavett Show."


4. The DOX: LAB reinvents educational programming.
Besides the very worthwhile industry-catered DOX: FORUM - a 3 day pitching event hosted by Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation's Jess Search and Shooting People's Ingrid Kopp that offered a wide variety panels and networking opportunities - CPH:DOX's main non-cinematic programming comes via DOX:LAB, an international talent development program that launched at last year's fest. DOX:LAB is a very unique take on a festival's educational programming, with eighteen participants representing twelve different countries are matched in teams of two and meet for the first time during CPH:DOX. After a series of workshops, they begin to develop and produce nine films that will screen during the following year's festival. Essentially, the program is intended to merge backgrounds in terms of culture, narrative tradition and access, and make a space for them to be developed and explored together.

A scene from Khavn La Cruz and Michael Noer's "Son of God."

This year's fest saw all 11 of last year's pairings come back to CPH:DOX to screen there work, including three feature-length titles: Philippines-Iceland pairing Frosti Runolfsson and John Torres and their "Hudas Hudas," Philippines-Denmark duo Khavn La Cruz and Michael Noer and their "Son of God," Philippines-Sweden pairing Sherad Anthony Sanchez and Robin Fardig with "Balangay." Of the three, "Son of God" ended up additionally screening in the fest in its main competition, eliciting a divisive but appreciative response from most audiences. Noted by fest organizers as "the wild boys" of last year's school, Noer and La Cruz could find their film a cult favorite at future festivals for its faux-documentary story of a dwarf who is idolized as the son of God on the streets of Manila.


5. Copenhagen and its people are really awesome.
At the festival's award ceremony, Festival Director Tine Fischer thanked the people of Copenhagen for selling out a screening that was essentially two hours of a woman walking into a lake. And that really is quite something. The success of CPH:DOX is largely a testament to the people of a city who can largely sell out a festival that consists of mostly experimental works. For a film festival to truly succeed, it needs a city willing to embrace its mission, and Copenhagen and CPH:DOX are certainly a match.

But on the other hand, there's what Copenhagen as a city has to offer all the festival's visitors. The programmers, journalists, filmmakers and doc insiders from around the world who visit CPH:DOX have an added bonus in Copenhagen itself. With the sole exception of being ridiculously expensive (particularly for North Americans), Copenhagen is a pretty perfect setting for anything, really. Beautiful architecture, cafes and people fill its tiny, windy streets (filled more with bicycles than cars), and there's a certain energy in the people and the environments that one comes to recognize quite quickly. "Hygge" is a Danish word that literally translates into "cozy" but refers more to a feeling of friendly, warm companionship that is fostered when Danes gather together in groups of two or more. The participants don't have to be friends, they can have just met. And while the word is more in reference to specific "hyggelige" atmospheres that include open fires, lit candles and copious amounts of alcohol, one might argue that CPH: DOX is one giant "hygge" for the quickly growing amount of visitors that come to Copenhagen for it. And what better place to discover something unexpected?

Peter Knegt is indieWIRE's Associate Editor. Follow him on Twitter and on his blog.

This article is related to: Features, The Arbor