May 15, 2017

CPH:DOX Re-emerges in Spring with CPH: CONFERENCE

One of the theaters in Kunsthal Charlottenborg, the headquarters of CPH: DOX. Courtesy of CPH:DOX

Nothing stirs you from your morning film festival slumber faster than hearing your own name mentioned out loud in front of a packed audience. There I was on day one of the CPH:FORUM at the CPH:DOX Festival minding my own business, studying my program guide, trying to stay upright on one of the festival's cushy couches in its brand new Social Cinema, when suddenly the words, "I was talking to Ken Jacobson of Documentary magazine…" drifted toward me from the front of the room. "Huh? What? Who, me? Could there possibly be another Ken Jacobson in this room? (It is Denmark, after all, where there are a good number of "Jacobsens" to be found.) No such luck. Not only was my name mentioned, but my offhanded comments from a casual conversation the day before with the festival's Deputy Director, Industry & Training, Katrine Kiilgaard, were now being quoted back to this room of several hundred filmmakers and industry insiders.

My mind began racing. What stupid thing(s) did I say to her that was(were) going to haunt me at all future documentary gatherings for the rest of my life? Kiilgaard continued, "He called CPH:DOX a 'maximalist' festival…" Was this a bad thing I said? Would I be forced to leave the country on the next plane back to Trump's America? In fact, I had meant the term as merely descriptive, quoting a word I had read in the festival's own program guide, which called one of the filmmakers in the NEW:VISION Award section, "CPH:DOX's favourite maximalist."

Kiilgaard then proceeded to relate her response to me from the day before that CPH:DOX's intention was not simply to add programs for the sake of getting bigger, but to focus on different subject areas with the strategic intent of reaching new audiences of all ages. According to Festival Director Tine Fischer, CPH:DOX intends to reach beyond the world of nonfiction filmmaking: "We have done our best to reflect what is happening not only in the world of nonfiction cinema, but also, more specifically, what is happening in the ever-growing field between artistic innovation and political impact."

Was the 2017 edition of CPH:DOX successful? Before we consider that, let's back up for a moment. If you aren't already familiar with CPH:DOX and its recent history, you should know that CPH:DOX stands for the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival. Best known as a festival that explores and pushes the boundaries of nonfiction film with aesthetically bold programming, 2017 was CPH:DOX's 14th and perhaps most pivotal year. Having made the biggest decision a festival can make, which is to move its place on the festival calendar, 2017 was an important proving ground for the festival. Could it successfully shift from November, situated right before Amsterdam's mighty IDFA festival, to March? Would its new date attract as many or more audiences, filmmakers, press and industry? Would the one-and-a-half-year gap since the last CPH:DOX make the festival seem less urgent? Judging by the numbers and the enthusiasm of attendees, the move seems to have been a rousing success.

Courtesy of the CPH:DOX post-festival website, under the self-congratulatory, but still well-deserved heading, "CPH:DOX's first spring edition brings the festival up to the international top," here are some numbers: "As many as 97,500 spectators took part in the festival's first spring edition, a considerable rise from the 91,400 attendees in 2015. In 2017, no less than 1,784 international and national industry delegates, of which more than 300 journalists, attended the festival, which is an increase of over 20 percent from the 1,499 industry guests who visited the festival in 2015." (If nothing else, the Danish are precise: note the "1,499" as opposed to the sloppily rounded-up "1,500.")

And what about that "maximalist" approach? Here are some of the offerings served up by this most impressive festival, in addition to the more than 200 film screenings.

  • Two new "talk-based" initiatives, including extended conversations between artists "and other cultural forces"
  • Audiovisual concerts, interactive exhibitions
  • CPH: MARKET, a video-on-demand market service
  • VR: Cinema, a curated program of VR and AR projects
  • A new children's program
  • CPH: SCIENCE, a series of films and programs for adults and children
  • A program curated by artist/musician Anohni
  • An art installation entitled Welcome Too Late, curated by Toke Lykkeberg
  • The Blue Room, a public space devoted to more talks and live stream broadcasts
  • CPH: CONFERENCE, a new five-day conference organized with Documentary Campus
  • Good Pitch Europe 2017, held in conjunction with CPH: DOX for the first time
  • Propellor, a new two-day "ideation" workshop that aims to link the film and tech industries

And, as if that wasn't maximalist enough, consider these, too: a new pop-up restaurant; parties, concerts and "alternative events," including a "pink camper midnight happening" (guess I missed that one); a triangle mass (I think I saw that one, but don't ask me for details); a VR ambulance from Gaza (yes, it was parked out in front of the Kunsthal and it never got a parking ticket); and a Christiania parade (I believe they are still trying to organize a group for that one; FYI, Christiana is a unique, neo-hippie community across town); and, perhaps most noteworthy, a brand new festival center, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, one of Copenhagen's leading art centers, which housed, comfortably and functionally, most of these activities.

I will focus on just one of those events: the five-day CPH:CONFERENCE, a new partnership between CPH:DOX and Documentary Campus, the well-regarded European professional training initiative. According to Kiilgaard, the partnership met both organizations' goals and the timing was right. For CPH:DOX, the goal was to reach more industry with a program in keeping with its multiple subject areas. "Formerly, industry people who have come here have come to see the films in the festival or to participate in the Forum, basically," she says. "I think that we felt there was a growing interest to come to CPH:DOX, and we would like to offer something substantial to all of those who come here without a project to fund or co-produce." Documentary Campus Director Donata von Perfall, whose program works with other European festivals as well, was looking for new partners, too.

After deciding on the five-day format, the final piece of the puzzle was figuring out that each day should have its own theme, led by a well-connected guest curator, who would design the day's sessions in close collaboration with Documentary Campus and CPH:DOX. The themes were:

Day 1: Art, Technology & Change
Day 2: Science & Film
Day 3: Serialized
Day 4: The Art of Impact
Day 5: Art:Film

Day 1: Art, Technology & Change
Curators: Mark Atkin and Lars Hojholt

The curators wasted no time in setting out an ambitious agenda: "We will see how artists are embracing new tools to comment on the world and the post-human condition with rising political awareness and activism and examine how we interact, live and work with robots and artificial intelligence and what this ultimately reveals about ourselves and our humanity." As if current world politics aren't scary enough, consider that we may already be well on our way to a "post-human condition." But leaning in to that possibility with a keen sense of curiosity and passion, Atkin and Hojolt assembled an impressive range of artists working in a variety of cutting-edge media who are tackling some of these big issues. This included a number of artists with projects in the festival's Virtual and Augmented Reality exhibition (curated by Atkin and Tom Millen of Crossover Labs).

From Trevor Snapp's 'We Who Remain.'

Some of the more impressive work included photojournalist Trevor Snapp's We Who Remain, a VR film about the largely hidden conflict in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan; Christina Varvia's path-breaking Saydnaya: Inside a Syrian Torture Prison, which uses "ear-witness" testimony, 3D and acoustic modeling to re-create visually a Syrian torture prison that has been almost completely hidden from public view; The Enemy, Paul Georges' VR/AR presentation of war photographer Karim Ben Khelifa, which seeks to put audiences in the minds (and bodies) of enemy combatants; and Ram Devineni's impressive mix of lo- and hi-tech in the ongoing AR comic book series Priya's Shakti and Priya's Mirror, which have tackled the issues of sexual violence and acid attacks against women and girls in India.

Day 2: Science & Film
Curator: AC Coppens, CEO, The Marketing Catalysts

One of the challenges of working with different curators is that the style and approach to the programming can vary from day-to-day. Similarly, the limitations of the chosen formats can also mean that, over the course of a day, some sessions end up being more successful than others. Curator AC Coppens runs a boutique management consulting and marketing coaching business. She mixed two basic approaches: 1) bringing in a number of subject-area specialists to give a series of presentations; and 2) introducing interactive activities designed to bring a more hands-on approach to the day's topics. While the hands-on approach was a worthy contrast to the relative passivity of the other formats for the conference, the results were mixed. Because group work often leaves you at the mercy of having to produce a product quickly, the process and the results are often rather superficial. In retrospect, perhaps giving a smaller number of expert presenters more time would have given the audience a deeper dive into the subject matter.

Day 3: Serialized
Curator: Thom Powers, Artistic Director, DOC NYC

Working with noted documentary programmer, festival director and podcaster Thom Powers for the first time, the conference turned much of the attention on Day 3 to projects with a US connection. From the editors of The Jinx and Making a Murderer to directors Amir Bar-Lev and Ezra Edelman, the focus was on series, be they for SVOD platforms, television or podcasting. Putting in a virtuoso performance by moderating just about every session himself, Powers presented a wide range of coverage of the US doc scene in one day. While much of the content would be familiar to US-based filmmakers and industry, the largely European audience was likely being exposed to some of these filmmakers for the first time.

An insightful inclusion in the program was a Skype interview with Nicholas Quah, founder of Hot Pod, a newsletter focused on the podcast industry. In just a few short years, podcasting has emerged as a leading player in nonfiction storytelling, but its business practices and metrics remain largely opaque to filmmakers. As the podcasting model continues to mature, the information presented here will be of increasing interest to filmmakers as they continue to explore multiple platforms for their work.

Day 4: The Art of Impact
Curator: Sarah Mosses, CEO, Together Films

The focus swung back to Europe on Day 4 as film strategist Sarah Mosses, who runs a consulting business for filmmakers called Together Films, curated a day structured to "deliver a strategic focus to planning your impact campaigns and provide innovative case studies to inspire you to think big." Having previously worked at BritDoc, Europe's experts on impact, Mosses tapped BritDoc Foundation Director Beadie Finzi to deliver the keynote address. Laying out a brief history of the impact movement, and its migration from an American phenomenon to a global one, Finzi focused primarily on where she sees impact work heading in this Trump/Brexit era. According to Finzi, "The next 10 years will be at the ultra-local level. That's where the action will be." Given the mood of the times, Finzi's accent on the positive potential for this movement was a good note to begin the day on.

According to attendees, other highlights of the day included a lively conversation between Sundance Documentary Film Program Director Tabitha Jackson and Cecilia Lidin, documentary consultant at the Danish Film Institute, and an in-depth case study behind National Geographic's impact campaign for its climate change documentary Before the Flood, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Day 5: Art: Film
Curator: Jacqui Davies, Producer and Curator, Jacqui Davies Ltd.

Keeping things fresh, Davies opted for a series of longer conversations with artists. The day began with a fascinating conversation about philosophy, art and animal-human relations with filmmaker/artist Phillip Warnell and Dr. Louise Whiteley, an associate professor at the Medical Museum, University of Copenhagen. The conversation focused on Warnell's Ming of Harlem, about a man who kept a tiger and an alligator in his Harlem apartment. There was something liberating in Warnell's endlessly curious approach to filmmaking. Such Warnell-isms about his process included:

  • "It's never a solution; it's an opening."
  • "It's all about 'not knowing.' I love not knowing what I'm doing."
  • "It opens up possibility...to not fall back on what you know. There's potential there. It's drenched in potential."
  • "The poetic is an attempt to escape compartmentalization."

And, finally, when asked by Whiteley what he thought about living in a "post-truth" world, Warnell, not missing a beat, responded, "I don't think we ever inhabited a 'truth' world."

Next to take the stage was Israeli-born filmmaker/artist Yael Bartana, whose work seeks to challenge and subvert perceived political, ideological and historical truths. In her Israeli projects, Bartana dealt with the impact of war, military rituals and a sense of threat on everyday life. Between 2006 and 2011, she worked in Poland, creating the trilogy And Europe Will Be Stunned, a challenging project confronting the history of Polish-Jewish relations and its influence on the contemporary Polish identity. Working at the edge of performance art and documentary, Bartana takes a fascinating approach to process, form and content that contrasts with what is typically presented at more traditional documentary festivals.

Capping off the day, and the conference, was a three-hour masterclass with the British filmmaking duo Jane Pollard and Iain Forysth. Best known for their groundbreaking film made with Nick Cave, 20,000 Days on Earth, Pollard and Forsyth gave an overview of their career, work and unique collaborative creative process. Pollard described the magic that is possible when working with musicians when both approach the work with an open mind: "When you're not making a music video and they're not doing a music score, something incredible can happen." For a festival that celebrates the role of filmmakers as artists, this in-depth focus on Pollard and Forsyth, who are constantly driven by exploration and innovation, was a fitting conclusion.

One final thought about CPH:DOX 2017. At the risk of being called a "minutiaelist," I'd like to point out something that, by now, you have probably already noticed: CPH:DOX's favorite form of punctuation, hands down, is the colon. It also really likes to capitalize things. Besides what you've seen in this article so far, the 2017 festival brought us CPH:WIP (a works-in-progress section), CPH:MARKET, DOX:ACADEMY and CPH:LAB, not to mention multiple award categories with colons in between all of them. For my part, considering the vast range of topics, presenters and issues covered during the extremely comprehensive and thoroughly engaging CPH:CONFERENCE, I'd like to add one more: CPH:SUCCESS.

Ken Jacobson, IDA's former Director of Educational Programs and Strategic Partnerships, is a VR/AR Programmer for the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival and an AFI DOCS Forum Programmer.

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