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CPH:DOX 2023: Finding a Way Forward in Crisis

By Anthony Kaufman

Still from "On the Edge," directed by Nicolas Peduzzi. From overhead, a man in a white doctor's coat descends down a series of stairs.
Image ID: Still from "On the Edge," directed by Nicolas Peduzzi. From overhead, a man in a white doctor's coat descends down a series of stairs.

Responding to the “permacrisis”—a 2022 “word of the year” meaning “an extended period of instability and insecurity” and the title for one of the talks at this year’s CPH:DOX film festival and conference in Copenhagen—was a prevailing theme at this season’s March event. 

You could feel it in the fragile, sensitive, and overstressed disposition of filmmakers (“Sometimes I feel like drowning,”1 “I’m very much in a phase of burnout”2); you could hear it from producers and sales agents lamenting the squeeze in documentary distribution (“It’s a frightening moment”3, “dozens have spots have gotten wiped away,”4 “budget cuts are trickling down to the filmmakers”5); and you could see it on the city’s theatrical screens and in projects in development at the pitch forum, showcasing harrowing tales of oppression, injustice, and systemic abuse, disturbing visions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and, well, the utter collapse of civilized society.

On the brighter side, you could also see an attempt to work through the prevailing panic in the conversations that took place at the CPH:CONFERENCE. Field of Visions’ Charlotte Cook suggested that the current economic course correction is creating less concentration of power among a few select companies and projects, allowing for greater democratization of the field. Rebecca Day, a producer, psychotherapist, and co-founder of an initiative called DocuMentality, is working on an online mental health toolkit for nonfiction makers. And Amsterdam-based producer Anne-Marie Borsboom offered a new peer-to-peer platform called ShareDoc, allowing viewers to donate money directly to the people whose lives are portrayed in documentaries. Full disclosure, this writer was moved to donate to the participants in When Spring Came to Bucha, a reflective and quietly touching observational film about the shell-shocked Ukrainian community of Bucha trying to pick up the pieces. The film premiered at IDFA last November, but thankfully popped up again in Copenhagen, despite a slew of new docs about the war. 

And there’s more on the way: This year’s pitch Forum winners included two in-the-works by Ukrainian teams: Red Zone, an animated personal essay film about women caught in the ripples of the war by award-winning director Iryna Tsilyk (The Earth is Blue as an Orange) and Yegor Troyanovsky’s Cuba and Alaska, a portrait of two charismatic very young paramedic women from Kharkiv who remain remarkably full of good humor despite shuttling bloodied and blown-up soldiers from the frontlines.

There was also a hearty sense of solidarity and community in Copenhagen. After two years of the pandemic, attendance at CPH:DOX, which Variety anointed last week “one of the most influential documentary events of the year,” was robust, with a plethora of prominent industry attendees, lots of smiling filmmakers, and audience-packed theaters (with not a single mask in sight).

Founded in 2003 as a fall event, CPH:DOX moved to the spring in 2017, and has since thrived by carving out a substantial place for itself early in the nonfiction industry calendar, hosting dozens of strong world premieres, which is giving longer-standing festivals such as IDFA and Hot Docs a run for their money. Notably, this year’s main DOX:AWARD competition, comprised of 13 feature films, were all world premieres, which is a first for the event. Notably, most of these films hail from European, and specifically Scandinavian filmmakers, (10 out of the 13), compared with IDFA’s slightly more diverse selection in the fall (where about half of the slate is European).

Perhaps cognizant of this Eurocentric perspective, two compelling new films reinforced this tension in their content. Danish director Emil Langballe and Polish director Lukasz Konopa’s Theatre of Violence is a compelling and visually rich international courtroom thriller about Ugandan soldier Dominic Ongwen, whose case raises questions about the relationship between Europe and Africa. Forcibly recruited at the age of 9 by the Lord’s Resistance Army, where he grew up to become a barbaric commander in the cult-like Christian rebel group, he was brought to trial by the International Criminal Court. In following Ongwen’s charismatic Ugandan defense attorney, a suave and savvy fixer, the film posits the notions that Ongwen is as much as victim as he’s a perpetrator, and whether Europe’s retributive form of justice is yet another legacy of its colonializing worldview. 

A lighter but no less provocative take on the subject, The Other Profile follows French filmmaker Armel Hostiou who discovers an active Facebook profile with his own name and photo. The individual appears to be using his identity to hold auditions for a film in Kinshasa. In bumbling white-man-with-a-camera fashion, he journeys to the sprawling capital of the Congo to find the impersonator. (The film’s original French title “Le vrai du faux”—more directly translated as “The truth from the fake”—feels more apropos.) For much of the film, it’s hard to tell whether Hostiou is perpetrating the same kind of colonialist gaze as he’s trying to critique as he wanders around Kinshasa possibly getting duped by the locals. But by film’s end, there is a poignant reversal that more subtly reflects the complex and explicit power hierarchies that remain between the French and their former colonies. 

For strife within current totalitarian regimes, there were two unsettling examples. This year’s DOX winner Motherland, from Ukrainian-Belarusian director Alexander Mihalkovich and Ukrainian director Hanna Badziaka, is a searing exposé of life in Belarus. Balancing lyrical sequences of haunting letters read aloud from demoralized soldiers within a ruthless military system and a mother seeking justice for her son who was found dead during army training (apparently, not a rare occurrence), the film tracks the crackdowns around the 2020 disputed election of current autocrat and Putin ally, Aleksandr Lukashenko. A startling sequence shot from inside a car as riot police smash through the glass front window and then proceed to beat the people inside displays truly horrifying state violence.

Similarly, Total Trust, from Chinese expatriate filmmaker Jialing Zhang, who co-directed Sundance winner One Child Nation (2019) with Nanfu Wang, portrays a devastating and seemingly unceasing repressive social environment in China where dissent is squashed from every side. While the film’s depiction of China’s omnipotent techno-surveillance state is predictably chilling (“big data makes totalitarianism easier,” says one of the characters), the film is most upsetting in its depiction of internalized self-control, with friends and neighbors policing and watching over each other, and an experimental program in one city where citizens earn “social credit” points for not reporting grievances to the authorities. Against the backdrop of this 1984-like sci-fi reality, there is a more human and heartbreaking story about two human rights lawyers, each of whom have a wife and son suffering under the pressures of persecution. It does not end well.

CPH:DOX has a long reputation for embracing more hybrid and innovative documentary forms, which has distinguished it from other major documentary markets such as IDFA and Hot Docs. Indeed, the festival’s main competition only included two head-scratchers: the only U.S. filmmaker present, Jesse McLean’s Light Needs, a kind of chronicle of the secret life of house plants, and Swedish entry Vintersaga, a series of tableaux of Swedish life. And while plenty of entries had some formally boundary-pushing elements, most were accessible to audiences. Even Norwegian director Margaret Olin’s ravishingly beautiful nature film Songs of Earth, composed almost entirely of images of snowy mountainous landscapes and her elderly parents, entices with its poetic look at aging (of people and the planet), and above all, a loving approach to its subject matter.

For weirder stuff, the festival continues to showcase such work in a section called NEW:VISION. That’s where you could find The Society of the Spectacle, the latest film from master Swedish essayist Goran Hugo Olsson, maker of The Black Power Mixtape (2011) and Concerning Violence (2014). Co-directed with and hosted by Iranian-Swedish artist Roxy Farhat, the new documentary lacks his earlier films’ powerful and mesmerizing flow of archival images, opting instead for a more grad-school-esque discussion with experts speaking together with Farhat about quotes from Guy Debord’s famous Situationist manifesto about a society warped by mediation. 

A more visually enticing essay film, Videocracy (2009) director Erik Gandini’s latest After Work examines the nature of labor in extremes. On one side, the film sharply examines the rise of the Calvinist “work ethic” and today’s workaholics, from a laughable American motivational speaker to an Italian gardener to South Korean office workers; on the other, and even more eye-opening, there are revelations of those who do not work at all, from a generation of hedonistic young Italians who seem perfectly happy with underemployment to a class of citizens in Kuwait whose oil-rich economy allows them to get paid for doing nothing—which turns out to be less utopian dream than purgatorial nightmare. 

There is one group missing from After Work, however, and that is those people who don’t really have a choice to work themselves to the bone. One of the best films in CPH:DOX’s main section, Nicolas Peduzzi’s On the Edge, winner of a Special Jury Prize, follows such a man, Dr. Jamal Abdel Kader, the only psychiatrist in a 400-bed public hospital on the outskirts of Paris. Peduzzi’s camera chases after the sensitive and blunt Kader down winding hallways, in and out through doors, up and down stairs, and occasionally, for a short break outside on the fire escape. Like Kadar, the camera is almost always moving, as he pinballs between patients suicidal, schizophrenic, and somewhere in between. And we never leave the building—trapped with him in an under-funded, under-staffed, and over-burdened system that still yields moments of true caring, sweetness, and human connection. Like Sundance winner A Still Small Voice (2023), the film arrives at a similar conclusion that resonates deeply during our times of permacrisis. “To care for people,” Kader says, “we need to care for us a bit, too.”


1 Andreas Dalsgaard, director/producer, Elk Film
2 Charlotte Cook, Field of Vision
3 Julie Goldman, Motto Pictures
4 Jason Ishikawa, Cinetic Media
5 Brian Newman, Sub-Genre

Anthony Kaufman is a freelance journalist, film instructor at the New School, DePaul and Loyola Universities, Senior Programmer at the Chicago International Film Festival and the Doc10 film festival, and co-author of Hope for Film: A Producer's Journey Across the Revolutions of Indie Film and Global Streaming.