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Is CPH:DOX Ruining Documentary Film or Saving It?

Is CPH:DOX Ruining Documentary Film or Saving It?

American filmmakers Sabine Gruffat and Bill Brown have a history of making nonfiction movies that don’t fit neatly within conventional documentary modes. For that reason, it can be difficult to find venues in the U.S. that will exhibit their evocative landscape-based work. One of Brown’s shorts, “Buffalo Common,” played at Sundance in 2003; Gruffat’s 2012 feature “I Have Always Been A Dreamer” screened in the Museum of Modern Art’s Documentary Fortnight series. But U.S.-based options are few and far between.

So when it came time to world premiere their new collaboration “Speculation Nation,” a lucid snapshot of Spain’s pre-bubble real estate speculation and the current squatters taking advantage of it, there was little doubt to go with CPH:DOX, Copenhagen’s documentary festival.

Founded 12 years ago, CPH:DOX was one of the first major film events to see “nonfiction as art,” as co-founder and festival director Tine Fischer defines it. Inspired by the likes of Jean Rouch and Jean-Luc Godard, she explained, “We wanted to show the kinds of nonfiction films that appealed to us as cinephiles.”

The festival has grown considerably over the last dozen years, with an expanding film program (from 70 to 200 films), growing attendance (12,000 to 70,000) and increasing cultural power, as they are at the vanguard of a new global interest in artistic nonfiction. Once considered “naughty, young” upstarts, they are now in competition for premieres with the longstanding International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA), which takes place just one week later in Holland.

This year’s program, for instance, scooped IDFA with the European premiere of several high-profile titles, including “Storm Children: Book One,” award-winning Philippine director Lav Diaz’s stunningly photographed black-and-white portrait of children looking for resources among the waterlogged debris of a flooding disaster.

Drawing on Denmark’s strong support for documentary filmmaking, this year’s festival also got first dibs on such strong Danish entries as “Burma VJ,” director Anders Ostergaard’s “1989,” a compelling “real-time” chronicle of the events leading up the fall of the Berlin Wall; Camilla Nielsson’s “Democrats,” a bittersweet verite depiction of the tough process of democracy-making in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwean dictatorship; and Andreas Dalsgaard’s “Life is Sacred,” a stirring electoral portrait, which follows the unlikely rise of idealist intellectual-turned-politician Antanas Mockus within Columbia’s corrupt political system.

Because of the heightened competition for premieres, CPH:DOX organizers have suggested the vague possibility of changing their dates so as not to run up so close to IDFA.

But CPH:DOX ultimately distinguishes itself as a different kind of showcase, committed to “the hybrid field between documentary and fiction,” as its program states. For further evidence, one need look no further than the main competition, which includes, alongside the work of groundbreakers Lav Diaz, Pedro Costa (“Horse Money”), and Andrei Konchalovsky (“The Postman’s White Nights”), newcomers like Robert Greene, with his evocative blending of verite and performance film “Actress,” and Swedish artist Mans Mansson, with “Stranded in Canton,” a wry hybrid fiction-doc about a Congolese t-shirt seller stuck in Guangzhou.

“Stranded in Canton,” which had its world premiere at CPH:DOX and was supported through the festival’s CPH:LAB program (which funds projects by pairs of filmmakers from different nations), is just the kind of oddity that would never get this kind of center stage platform at other festivals. Directed by Mansson, and conceived in collaboration with Chinese filmmaker Hongqi Li (“Winter Vacation”), the documentary has a central protagonist that is pure fiction, but the entire project was improvised. At times feeling like a mix of Claire Denis and Jia Zhangke, the result is a strange, sad, funny and revealing portrait of displacement, and a new kind of globalization: East meets African.

CPH:DOX’s celebration of hybridity may seem shrewd and forward-thinking, but their growing presence on the documentary scene has also come with some criticisms. Programmer Niklas Engstrom recalls an incident last year in which a veteran German documentary director verbally accosted him after a screening with the accusation: “You’re ruining documentary film!”

Some have claimed the same thing about Copenhagen-based “The Act of Killing” director Joshua Oppenheimer, who is a kind of celebrity in the city; his face was splashed across the cover of the hip weekly paper, his Wednesday Master Class was a hot ticket, and banners for his latest, “The Look of Silence,” a frontrunner in the festival’s main competition, could be seen atop several buildings.

If Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” was a poster child for the festival’s championing of ecstatic truths, CPH:DOX’s Tine Fischer said Oppenheimer’s first film actually inspired the festival in another way: to provide a platform for works of art that create social and political change. In the last two years, according to Fischer, the festival has increased its political content and sought ways to break down any preconceived barriers that may exist between film art and activism. If that sounds like the festival may be backtracking towards familiar terrain — most festivals, from Sundance to Cannes, highlight political docs — Niklas Engstrom said it was important for the festival to keep changing it up. “With success comes the danger of repetition,” he said.

Part of CPH:DOX’s shifts also include the addition four years ago of CPH:FORUM, a financing and co-production confab held during the latter half of the festival, which will see the participation this year of several industry bigwigs (BBC’s Nick Fraser, Tribeca’s Ingrid Kopp), as well as a transmedia conference, now in its second year, called SWIM, a.k.a. Scandinavian World of Innovative Media. Indeed, CPH:DOX seems to take that newly resonant mantra to heart: Innovate or die.

The festival continues through the weekend, with 5,000 Euro awards being doled out in four separate competitive categories.

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