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CPH:DOX 2024: Visibility and Interdependency

By Anthony Kaufman

Two people dressed in black stand on a stand in front of a full audience of spectators.

CPH:FORUM 2024. Image credit: Kathrine Tunde. Courtesy of CPH:DOX

“In a time when public interest media is in jeopardy—from market forces, from big tech, from political pressures—we need to organize,” declares DISCO, a network of documentary organizations in the first volume of their new endeavor, the Independence Project, which was unveiled during the industry program of CPH:DOX, Copenhagen’s prominent documentary festival (which ran March 13-24). For DISCO, the Independence Project and the “independent” label are needed to “reclaim our identity,” according to the report. “Only then and only together will we be able to make the case for the resources and the platforms that this field needs and deserves.”

But throughout Copenhagen’s festival and its prominent pitch forum, the more than 700 industry delegates and dozens of documentarians in attendance voiced a different mantra: Not independence, but interdependence. As filmmaker Marjan Safinia testified in the DISCO document: “There is also a curse to independence as opposed to interdependence…. It ties our hands and feet because we’re constantly reinventing the wheel that our neighbor already has the wheel next door.... We’re so proud of our independence that we’ll die on that hill,” she said. “And as a result, many of us are dying.”

CPH:DOX, which continues to grow in stature within the global nonfiction landscape, can hopefully serve as a kind of lifesaver, ensuring that independent filmmakers don’t feel so isolated or independent, after all. And as "the kickoff for Europe for the year in documentary,” as CPH:DOX’s new Head of Industry Mara Gourd-Mercado called it, the festival has a unique position on the calendar to launch projects (mostly from Europe) and bring people together in the springtime (after the winter festival onslaught and before the rush of Cannes).

The festival has set out to accomplish this by focusing on unveiling top-notch world premieres, according to Artistic Director Niklas Engstrøm. “We are aware that we need to be as original as ever, but the program also needs to be relevant for the industry,” he said. “And that’s about world premieres but also quality world premieres that can perform in the marketplace.”

Engstrøm pointed out this doesn’t mean CPH:DOX is abandoning its reputation for boundary-pushing experimental or hybrid “crazy arty films,” he said. “But we've been even more conscious to find films that are marketable and that we also love.”

To clarify, “marketable” at CPH:DOX isn’t the same as “marketable” at more commercial North American markets like Sundance or Toronto. For example, one of the Festival’s buzzier world premieres in its main competition was British directing duo Jacob Perlmutter and Manon Ouimet’s Two Strangers Trying Not to Kill Each Other, a kind of nonfiction Scenes From a Marriage starring famous New York street photographer Joel Meyerowitz and his second wife Maggie Barrett. Fascinatingly intimate, and a million miles away from a standard portrait of an artist couple, the film is filled with artful tableaux and unsettling and humorous moments of marital strife, deep affection, and end-of-life anxiety. Awarded a special mention by the main competition jury for its “immaculately crafted” form and “grace, humor and honesty,” the film could easily be positioned at other festivals in a more experimental sidebar, but at CPH:DOX, where houses were completely packed for the film, it was a main event.

The festival’s particulars make such fare more attractive to market players such as U.S. company Cinetic Media, which is handling world sales for Two Strangers Trying Not to Kill Each Other. “I could see the film struggling to pop at other festivals,” said Cinetic’s Jason Ishikawa. “But we got trade reviews, and rave reviews, and that resulting haul of press is so much bigger than what would have gotten elsewhere, so CPH was great for defining what the film is for buyers.” According to Ishikawa, the film received several offers from international buyers at the festival, but the company is prioritizing next steps for a U.S. launch. 

Other art-house docs also announced international sales representation at the festival. Examples include as Grand Me, about an Iranian girl caught in a custody battle, signed to Cat&Docs, and Once Upon a Time in a Forest, a lyrical and visually stunning portrait of a group of Gen-Z climate activists in Finland, which now has Autlook on board for world sales. While there is interest in such titles from international buyers, according to sales representatives, deals will take time. After all, most of the industry in attendance isn’t seeing a lot of movies; rather, they’re in town for meetings and pitches.

To wit, this year’s CPH:FORUM hosted 32 projects, some of them with directors or producers who also had completed films screening at the festival—international notables included Talal Derki, Signe Byrge Sørensen, and Andreas Dalsgaard. With the massive numbers of industry, meetings, networking lunches, and cocktail hours, the event offered the documentary community plenty of opportunities for interdependence. It might help that co-host Tabitha Jackson kicked things off with hundreds of attendees dancing in their seats to Charles Wright’s soul hit “Express Yourself” and questioning industry terms embedded with power hierarchies such as “pitch” (let’s just call them “presentations”) and “submission” (“your first action is to submit?”).

Indeed, Gourd-Mercado attributed the growth of the event’s industry presence to the curation and variety of the selected projects, but also “the atmosphere that we create,” she explained, “where people are there not to say, ‘oh no, your project is not for me,’ but to create a space where we elevate and want to be champions for that project.”

This year’s Forum Awards reflected that nurturing quality, complete with its inaugural “Peanuts” audience award—a stuffed Snoopy animal in honor of Jess Search, Doc Society’s late vivacious pioneer, who was an oft-spoken-of missed presence this year—given to the loveliest person at the industry Conference. 

The major Forum Awards went to projects that contained both creative promise and the prevailing political crises of our times, but again were less commercial than what you might find in North America: Ukrainian filmmaker Kateryna Gornostai’s Timestamp, an observational portrait of teachers and students across war-time Ukraine, received the Eurimages New Lab Award for Outreach (worth €30,000); Jigar Ganatra’s Children of Honey, an elegiac and warm-hearted look at climate-impacted cultural change among young people within the Hadza community of Tanzania, won the inaugural Rise And Shine Award for the project with “the best international potential and no sales agent attached” (along with €3000); and Rachel Leah Jones’s powerful presentation Podium (You Have Three Minutes), which, through a rich trove of archival material, chronicles decades of Palestinian elected officials trying to govern contentiously alongside Israelis in the Knesset, won the Unifrance Doc Award, worth €5390. Both Children of Honey and Podium were among the only projects to receive actual commitments on-stage after their pitches, respectively, from BBC Storyville and Dutch public broadcaster VRPO. 

Leah Jones, the award-winning director of Advocate, told Documentary that interest was “high” for the project. Despite the contentious political environment around Israel and Palestine, “Our exchanges with decision-makers were thoughtful and sensitive,” she said. “We didn't get the sense that the content scared anyone since the film we're making is about a far larger story than the present moment, large and scary as it is. And while this moment does eclipse much, it doesn't contradict. In the film that we're making, much of what was true before remains true now and will likely continue to be true after.”

Many filmmakers acknowledged that tangible results at the Forum are few and far between, and international funders’ timelines, often slow, for supporting a project may not always coincide with their own plans. But Navalny producer Diane Becker, who came to Copenhagen with first-time filmmaker Stephani Victor and her personal documentary about being a paralympic skiing champion, noted, “Having come off a very challenging year last year to get anything off the ground, there felt like some movement.”

Filmmaker Milton Guillén, who presented his project, My Skin and I, with co-director Fiona Hall and producer Zorana Musikic, acknowledged they might not leave the event with “direct funding” and that “it isn’t cheap to come here.” But he also understood their attendance “as an investment in visibility, we had an overall positive response.” They connected with art institutions, galleries, and grants that weren’t on their radar, “widening a network that was not immediate to us and had a clear career benefit for Fiona and myself,” he added. “And we have some promising meetings on the horizon.”

Overall, Guillen noted that the most important part of the experience was making new connections—again, solidifying the need for the interdependence of the indie filmmaker.  “We bonded with a few other projects, filmmakers, and industry folks, crystalizing and clarifying political, aesthetic, and moral alignments in a very complicated environment,” he continued. “While the industry at large is failing to acknowledge the importance of taking a clear institutional stance in the context of the violence in Gaza, as well as the escalations of it in the West Bank, festivals and markets also strengthen the bond amongst filmmakers. Despite its pitfalls, these festival gatherings, especially for those of us who don’t live in major movie-making cities, build solidarity.” 

Anthony Kaufman is an assistant professor at the New School and a film journalist. He has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Village Voice, Slate, Variety, Wall Street Journal, and other publications.