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Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival Winners and Disappointments

Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival Winners and Disappointments

This meant the creation of festival strands that explored diversity
in the documentary form, championing in particular that fruitful zone between
documentary and fiction.

Recently, though, the festival’s
programming has been responding as much to trends in content as form; and that
“content” is invariably culled from the news pages. This year’s edition included
the F:act Award for documentaries informed by investigative journalism; Reality:
Check, a three-day strand of films and events considering the state of democracy
in 2015; a program of politically charged films co-curated by the campaigning
writer Naomi Klein, whose own doc about climate change, “This Changes Everything”
(directed by Avi Lewis) featured at the festival; and “Borderline,” a strand dealing
with the refugee crisis in Europe.

It’s no coincidence that last year the most
successful film screened at CPH:DOX – perhaps ever – was Laura Poitras’s “Citizenfour,” with a number of extra screenings provided to account for demand. The unmistakeable air of social conscience has definitely spilled over to 2015.

That isn’t to say that issues-based
documentaries are necessarily good ones. A colleague here wondered if
filmmakers were throwing themselves at subjects while they were hot off the
press, without giving sufficient thought to the film itself; a kinder
observation is that most of the funding, certainly for local films, comes from
Danish television, with both the budget and the running time dictated by the
client; a certain slightness is inevitable.

Thus “Facebookistan” feels like the beginning
of an appealing and arguably valuable film about the mysterious workings of the
social media giant, whose much-vaunted ambition to foster openness around the
globe doesn’t extend to its own transparency. Director Jakob Gottschau casts
his net wide to discover quirky examples of the site’s censorial interventions,
while focussing on young Austrian privacy activist Max Schrems’s legal pursuit
of the company for data abuse. The result has shades of Michael Moore’s pester
and provoke approach; but a 59-minute running time and rough-around-the-edges
presentation doesn’t do justice to the material. I “liked” the film, but I’m
not sure that I’d “share” it just yet.

“A Good American” is a different
proposition altogether, a well-crafted blend of exposé and conspiracy thriller
that will be quietly devastating to anyone with personal memories of 9/11 and
provocative for all of those whipped into righteous indignation by revelations
about American’s surveillance practices and privacy abuses of its citizens.

Directed by the Austrian Friedrich Moser,
very much in the style of Errol Morris, the film’s focus is NSA whistleblower
William Binney, who offers a blow-by-blow account of how the surveillance and
data analysis system he developed for the agency in the late Nineties could
have averted 9/11 – if only it hadn’t been scrapped just months before the
terrorist attacks; then he adds salt to the wound with the assertion that in
the immediate aftermath, elements of the same system were dusted off, had the privacy
controls removed and redirected towards the new purpose of blanket

READ MORE: Could ‘A Good American’ William Binney Have Prevented 9/11 and Other Attacks? 

The film, which has its North American
premier at DOC NYC, reveals its fascinating story on a slow fuse, as Binney and
his colleagues recall their story – of groundbreaking success, followed by
disappointment, shock and finally persecution – with the quiet exactness of
scientists. Hopefully assumed familiarity with the surveillance theme
won’t  prevent the film following “Citizenfour”
into the light. Personally, I found the 9/11 material overwhelming.

Judges announced their presentation
of the F:act Award to “Among the Believers” just as the terrorist attacks in
Paris were unfolding; their decision now seems chillingly
appropriate. The film, by Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi, concerns the
Red Mosque in Islamabad, led by the controversial cleric Abdul Aziz and whose
network of Islamic schools is indoctrinating hundreds of children into radical

The directors don’t attempt to prove
connections between the Red Mosque and terrorism, but let their subjects lead
us to our own conclusions.
While Aziz, a smiling participant in the
documentary, routinely disassociates himself from Taliban atrocities against
Pakistanis, he admits that “every day a student of ours
is martyred.” Combining their extraordinary access to Aziz with interviews with
his opponents and the comments of children with very different views of the schools,
Trivedi and Naqvi paint a disturbing picture of the tensions that tear at
Pakistan on a daily basis – akin to those yet again being felt by Parisians.

Away from politics, a few films stood out
as potential travelers. “Code Girl” follows the liberating initiative
Technovation, which encourages schoolgirls across the globe to shine as IT
innovators. Director Lesley Chilcott has produced Davis Guggenheim’s documentaries,
but her own more resembles Jeffrey Blitz’s “Spellbound” as it charts the girl
teams prepping their community-minded apps for competition. It’s a very sweet
film about inspiring youngsters; ironically, given what I’ve been saying, it
could really do with a trim.  

Jazz fans will drool over “Cool Cats,” a Danish film
about the love affair between Copenhagen and African-American jazz greats
Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster, after the two tenor saxophonists moved to the
city in the Sixties. Using archive material and Webster’s own home movies, the
film is a fabulous account of these genial, troubled, iconic musicians and
their home from home.

“Brothers” proves that Richard Linklater hasn’t
emptied the well when it comes to considering children and the passage of time
on film. Norwegian director Aslaug Holm documents her own two sons for 10
years; but far from being a home movie, the result is an exquisitely shot and
often philosophical account of both family and filmmaking.
And when her boys complain of her constant filming and intrusiveness, Holm quotes
Ingmar Bergman, asserting that “a director should make every film as though
it’s the last thing they’ll ever do.”

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