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CPH: DOX: Ten Years on the Edge

By Marsha McCreadie

A baby upstart festival dedicated to including every possible type of  documentary when CPH:DOX sprang up in 2003, the annual festival in Denmark is now so sure of itself that this year it had an overall theme: the role of the artist, the documentarian-journalist, even the viewer, in reacting to political and economic realities. Perhaps some added oomph came from the fact that last year's CPH: DOX winner for best film, the genre-exploding The Act of Killing, is currently on many end-of-the year critics and documentary awards lists. And festival director Tine Fischer hasn't changed a whit in her adamant enthusiasm about keeping the festival's edginess.   

Nor has it lost its cheeky charm or grassroots feel, notwithstanding participants and entries from around the globe, renowned jurors, and seminars run by top-level filmmakers. Post-screening parties were listed in the program, reflecting the free-wheeling sensibility of its host country, with art installations springing up around Copenhagen. The weather too was unexpected, with little of the fearfully foretold November rain. So it was relatively easy to move from screenings to seminars, most taking place at the Cinemateket, the Danish Film Institute or nearby theaters. My favorite was the 1930s-like renovation of The Grand, with its plush red velvet(een) seats and fresh calla lilies.      

A number of world premieres were included among the more than 200 films screened, beginning with a section curated by Chinese dissident/filmmaker/artist Ai Weiwei. His Stay Home!, a cinema vérité treatment of a woman infected with HIV and dependant on the Chinese medical system, kicked off the festival, introduced by Weiwei on video. A cinematic coda screened a few days later with the premiere of Weiwei: The Fake Case by Danish documentarian Andreas Johnsen, telling the story of Weiwei's imprisonment under trumped-up charges. Many months of letter-writing were required to convince Weiwei to let Johnsen film him under house arrest in China, the director said. The film includes scenes of Weiwei interviewing his 80-year-old mother, and installing S A C R E D, a replica of his prison experience, at the 2013 Venice Biennale.


From Andreas Johnsen's Weiwei: The Fake Case


The art/politics/people intersection was complemented by films such as British director Alastair Siddons' Inside Out: The People's Art Project, focusing on the work of French street artist JR, characterized by huge, unnervingly intimate images of faces posted in public spots all over the world. The Audience Award-winning film was the similarly themed Everyday Rebellion, the Austrian-Swiss entry from Arman and Arash Riahi—Iranian brothers who now live in Vienna. Everyday Rebellion takes off with footage from the Occupy Wall Street movement, and then cuts to nonviolent protests about social injustice and financial inequity from Syria to Spain to the FEMEN Group in the Ukraine. "Peaceful protest is what it's all about," said Arash at the awards ceremony.    


From Arman and Arash Riahi's Everyday Rebellion


French-Algerian director Narimane Mari's debut, Bloody Beans, won the Best Film Award. With dream-haunting imagery, and a perception-altering, near-playful approach to the terrors of war and Algeria's occupation by France, the film magically melds art and message, with events taken from the point of view of a gaggle of Algerian kids. The movie's images may bowl you over, yet it's the music--by a European group called Zombie Zombie--that threads it together.


From Narimane Man's Bloody Beans


Not all films were brand new. Roberto Minervini's Stop the Pounding Heart, about a deeply religious family in Texas, was a hit at Cannes. The sub-category F:ACT included Alex Gibney's We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks and other investigative documentaries such as No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, directed by Callum Macrae, and Richard Rowley's Dirty Wars, about America's war on terrorism. Dirty Wars won the inaugural F:ACT Award, and journalist Jeremy Scahill, the film's writer, producer and on-camera protagonist, accepted the honor, speaking by Skype about the war on journalists themselves.  

The "Food on Film" strand included a notable premiere of Sandy McLeod's Seeds of Time. Its "narrator/lead," agricultural pioneer Cary Fowler, tracks the world's diminishing supply of seeds for food, tying this in with his own recurring cancer.   

 CPH: FORUM is a four-day kind of speed dating for filmmakers hoping to match up new projects with distributors and industry players. To-the-point suggestions came from rotating panelists as each presenter clocked in for a brief pitch, and then amazingly—in another example of the festival's openness—some would move to the audience to watch their peers/competitors present. A few days later, a seating arrangement found this reporter next to British documentarian Matt Hulse, pleased with a nod from a decision-maker about The Hippies: Punk Rocked My Cradle, his doc-in-utero about a band he had as a pre-teen.     

The "Hybrid Journalism" seminar drew me to the festival, with panelists including The Ambassador's  Mads Brügger; Werner Boote, of Plastic Planet; and Ben Lewis, director of Chancers. The BBC's Nick Fraser moderated the discussion. Brügger took my long puzzled-over questions:  Wasn't he truly afraid sometimes during The Ambassador? (Response: "All of the Central African Republic is scared all the time"). With ever-present cameras, why didn't people catch on to his assumed identity? (Response: "I told them the stationary cameras were recording events for diplomatic purposes.")  The panel hotly and humorously debated the role of the faux investigator, but even they couldn't settle on the historically first use of a fake cinematic interviewer. Twelve other seminars, plus master classes with Ulrich Seidl and Lisandro Alonso, kept film aspirants hopping.    

Some female filmmakers crossed categories, spinning forms in new ways. The Reunion, by Swedish director/actress Anna Odell, expands the first-person feature to include a multi-layered doc-within-a-film. Playing herself, Odell confronts high school classmates who didn't invite her to their reunion, and then shows them her own doc—with actors playing her mates. (As ironic off-  as well as on-camera, Odell said a Facebook page tipped her she hadn't been invited.)  In Kopfkino, Norwegian artist-director Lene Berg films eight S & M sex workers at a long food-laden table insightfully chatting about their profession, deciding it serves a social good. Later you realize the only "action" is the camera moving from one end of the table to another. In "New: Vision," an arts sub-section, collages by artists reveal the life of the Baroness Elsa von Freyag-Loringhoven, subject of Cassandra Guan and Lily Benson's The Filmballad of Mamadada. First-time Danish director Karen Stokkendal Poulsen uses a three-person narrative in The Agreement, filming talks among the formidable Edita Tahiri, prime minister of Kosovo; the less experienced but highly determined Borko Stefanovic of Serbia; and Robert Cooper, a  negotiator from the European Union. "Because Cooper and the others were so charismatic, I knew it could be a dramatic triangle," Poulsen said.   

One kvetch: the catalogue for CPH:DOX is gorgeous and beautifully written, but its index doesn't always match referenced pages, so a quick look-up was frustrating. Chalk it up to festival growing pains.


Marsha McCreadie is a New York City-based film critic who writes for and Film Journal International. Her most recent book is Documentary Superstars: How Today’s Filmmakers Are Reinventing the Form (Allworth Press).