Among the great cognitive dissonances of our time is the fact that those of us who fear the end of the world by way of natural forces like climate change, or human ones like fascism, increasingly seem to be in the minority. The rest do not care, remain wilfully ignorant, or are actively rooting these forces on. A group who make up part of that majority feature as the subject of Tonje Hessen Schei and co-director Michael Rowley’s Praying for Armageddon. The film unpacks the growing power of American evangelical Christians and their rise to mainstream political power. Their central belief – that the end of the world is near and when it comes, Jesus will save them – has become the lubricant that keeps one of the world’s most dangerous political machines running. It helped elect Donald Trump. It is why millions of dollars flow to the state of Israel: to fulfil a prophecy believed by Christian Zionists that Jewish people must be in charge of the Holy Land in order for Jesus to return.1 Jews will then either convert, or, like all who remain unsaved, be sent to Hell. Together, these groups of evangelicals stand as a willing barrier to the preservation of the world. To them, ecological and geopolitical devastation are welcome accelerants on the road to rapture. How do you reason with a group of people who openly root for the end times? 

Documentaries about Trump and his MAGA allies around the world are the new hydra. Recent examples include Unprecedented (2022), This Place Rules (2022), and January 6th (2022). By the time you watch one, three more may have appeared. Yet Praying for Armageddon is an original, welcome addition to this canon, and emerges as one of the best. This is a film about Trump that moves beyond the one man. It has the vision to place him and his people in context, all with an eye towards the dangerous nature of our current moment and the dangerous road ahead. The film balances more intimate stories – like an evangelical biker gang who travel the United States preaching about the end times – with that wider view. In doing so, the film avoids the familiar mistake of focusing too heavily on the headlines of today. It is a film about movements and ideologies that are here to stay, regardless of who leads the pack. 

Praying For Armageddon

Large and varied programs have made CPH: DOX, the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival, one of the most exciting and influential festivals in the world. As a viewer, I wanted to engage with every film, but inevitably made tough choices. My selections this year were not made under the guise of any theme or motivation, but inevitably, certain throughlines began to emerge. That should be no surprise: the greatest documentaries, no matter the period in which they deal, bear traces of the moment in which they were produced. They speak not only to the now, but to where we as a world are headed. Each of the films mentioned in this report, in one way or another, deal with such questions. They attempt to fill gaps in histories, and in so doing reflect the ongoing crises we face, including climate change, the rise of global fascism, violence directed towards queer people, and the continued erasure of people of colour, particularly Black people, from history. All of these films take a stand, albeit some better than others. But, in a moment in which such threats continue to multiply faster than the aforementioned Trump flicks, clarity and conviction are very much needed on the big screen.

Nuclear Now

The fate of the Earth features in a pair of films about the possibilities of nuclear power: Frankie Fenton’s Atomic Hope: Inside the Pro-Nuclear Movement, and Nuclear Now, the latest offering from Oliver Stone. Both films make the persuasive case for the widespread adoption of nuclear power as a solution to the climate crisis. Telling similar histories, each unpacks the public’s understandable fears about nuclear power, particularly in the wake of the United States’ use of atomic weapons on the people of Japan, and subsequent disasters like the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant explosion. The rhetorical, political, and emotional battle pro-nuclear forces face includes reteaching a fearful populace to no longer equate nuclear power with nuclear weapons. While both films call for new ways of thinking, each opts for their own conventional route in telling their story for the screen. 

Atomic Hope centres on the efforts of pro-nuclear activists to build political will and power. Proponents point to the ways in which nuclear power solves the problems of fossil fuels (toxic waste, air pollution, carbon emissions, etc.) in the same ways that green energies like solar and wind do, yet produces at a far greater capacity (and takes up far less land). The film makes the case that the problem with nuclear power is a failure of public relations, not science. Though their allies feature prominent figures, like the climate scientist James Hanson, they struggle to earn the respect of establishment science organizations, government initiatives, and the like. A medley of familiar scenes make up the film: talking head interviews, hand-held cameras following groups of key figures around the globe, infighting amongst the activists, and a clear ambition to plant the seeds of action in audiences both in and outside of the frame. That call to action, though, comes without a clear road map. Fractured storylines make the film seem just as directionless as the movement itself. The film suffers equally from a tonal imbalance. At times, ire seems more directed towards the public than the powerful. Criticisms of ignorant masses are fair game. But if there was ever a misunderstanding that should elicit genuine sympathy, it is one that involves questions of nuclear weapons and power. Surely, this is a film that will spark important conversations amongst those who watch it, particularly the liberal crowd that tends to seek out films like this one. Unfortunately, many may be too quickly put on the defensive, and thus be put off by its rhetorical and narrative approaches. 

Stone’s documentary suffers from precisely the opposite problem. An aggressively uncinematic film that carries the tone and style of a conference presentation, Stone, in the role of narrator, takes the viewer through the history of nuclear power, its controversial role in the energy economy and public consciousness, and the work that scientists and activists pursue today. Like Atomic Hope, Nuclear Now levies a critique against the left and environmentalists, who, Stone says, have allowed their bias towards all things nuclear to get in the way of the most effective solution to climate change. The public outcry over nuclear power has, he argues, provided cover for the fossil fuel industry, which is responsible for far more death and destruction than nuclear power. There is something effective about Stone’s banal style, though: he conveys a clear sense of urgency, and a thoughtful critique. It is clear that this is a story that he needed to get off his chest, but the uninventive approach to form (this could have made a better podcast than documentary) may, like Atomic Hope, keep the message from cutting through the anti-nuclear noise.

The Natural History of Destruction

Two gems of the festival come in the form of archival documentaries from a pair of celebrated filmmakers. Sergei Loznitsa, the Belarus born Ukrainian director of Donbass (2018) and Blockade (2006), returns to the archive for his latest film, The Natural History of Destruction. Based on the work of German writer W.G. Sebald, the film documents the bombings of the German people at the end of the Second World War. The film features no voiceover or many of the usual cues that guide the viewer’s visual processing of found materials. Instead, Loznitsa opts for a more symphonic style, allowing the images, and original music by Christiaan Verbeek, to wash over the viewer. We witness devastation and the impact of war on defenceless people. Loznitsa deliberately finds horrific beauty in these images: bombs rhythmically drop from planes and light up the night sky. Such images, though, are reattached to their historical index, as he brings us to the streets of Germany in the wake of the wreckage: dead bodies, destroyed homes, signs from desperate civilians looking for missing loved ones. Faceless images become intimate portraits of people and highlight the capriciousness of war. 

Mark Cousins’ The March on Rome traces the rise of Benito Mussolini in 1920s Italy, and thus the fascistic domino effect that ensued throughout the world up to this day. Many will know Cousins best from The Story of Film (2011), and other documentaries that drill down on famous figures of the cinema. Here, Cousins offers a manifesto for how cinephilia and the videographic impulse towards close film analysis can be put in the service of the anti-fascist cause. The work feels like a roadmap, a call for movie obsessives to put their skills to work in similar ways. Using a cadence and audio-visual techniques that echo those commonly found in video essays, for example, Cousins begins his work by dissecting another, the Italian propaganda film, A Noi! (Umberto Paradisi, 1923), which documented Mussolini’s takeover, the 1922 March on Rome. Cousins reveals how images were deceptively framed, shot, and edited to favour the fascist cause: small crowds were made to seem larger; shots of Mussolini were framed to achieve maximum dramatic effect; the fascistic camera filmed the same group of soldiers over and over again to deceptively grow the size of the army. In pointing to these techniques, Cousins showcases the power of the editing room and the violent ways in which it can be put into service. Through voiceover, he wonders who else might have been watching, and goes on to show the visual similarities between Italian propaganda and that of the Germans, Japanese, and Spanish. Cousins’ film carries with it extra weight given the ascent of fascism in the 21st century. And Loznitsa’s does too due to the Russian state’s ongoing assault on Ukraine. Both Cousins and Loznitsa reuse images in such a way so as to evoke a transcendent temporality. Indeed, The Natural History of Destruction and The March on Rome are not only past and present, but our future, too. 

How To Carry Water

An engaging trio of shorts comprised the Queer Futures section of this year’s CPH: DOX. In How to Carry Water, Sasha Wortzel offers a rich portrait of Shoog McDaniel, a fat, non-binary, queer, disabled artist who works in Florida. McDaniel’s photography challenges society’s pervasive fat phobic views of the human body. What makes How to Carry Water a compelling watch is not just hearing this story from McDaniel, and those who are photographed, but how Wortzel allows the viewer to experience the process of creation by way of the moving image. Wortzel’s gorgeous visual imagery, of bodies moving through a freshwater spring, for example, evoke McDaniel’s photography and aesthetic. The camera travels throughout the water, capturing the body from above, below, and at the water’s edge. This is not just a document of an artistic practice, but an immersive experience. 

MnM, from director Twiggy Pucci Garçon, is a compelling portrait of family and friendship that centres on two “chosen sisters,” Mermaid and Milan. The two became close after a chance encounter in the drag scene in New York City. A filmic glimpse of this single relationship becomes about much more, as both Mermaid and Milan talk about what brought them together: knowing that their genders defied society’s insistence on the rigid labels of language. They each found themselves in seeing and being with the other. What is left unsaid, but still feels present in the film, is the growing violence directed at drag performers, and queer people more widely, in the United States, and the fascistic trend of telling people they cannot be who they really are. Such realities figure directly as the subject of The Script, too. Directors Brit Fryer and Noah Schamus and a group of performers recreate interactions between members of the trans and non-binary communities with medical professionals. The film captures the dynamics in a doctor’s office, where individuals are often subjected to erasure, diminishment, and treatment that does not serve their best interests. The film opts for reflexivity, as much of the documentary is about the staging of these scenes and the contexts around them. We see the filmmakers and performers at work, and come to understand the catharsis that comes with re-enacting such moments. In capturing lived experiences, both films are testimonials to the power of language by way of the moving image. 

Little Richard: I Am Everything

Biographical portraits are staples of most documentary festivals, and this year’s CPH: DOX was no exception. Two standouts in this category were films that offer nuanced looks at the lives of two ground-breaking artists. The first, Lisa Cortes’ Richard: I Am Everything, does not shy away from the complexities of Little Richard’s life. It treats him as the virtuosic, queer icon that he was, while also noting that his own turns with religious fundamentalism and public denunciations of homosexuality were sinful. What makes the film a compelling watch, in part, is how Cortes and the interviewees make clear throughout that the making of this documentary serves to correct history, to give Little Richard the credit he deserves and often had taken from him by white artists. Some of the film’s best moments come when clips of white artists, like Pat Boone singing Little Richard’s music, are juxtaposed with clips of Richard himself. The disparity between the two reveals how white singers like Boone topped Little Richard on the charts; such racism followed Richard throughout his career and remains pervasive today. Cortes’ film strikes the perfect balance in tracing Little Richard’s influence and life by offering an intimate portrait of the man himself. It is not so much a deification as much as a work that captures the essence of a performer who wowed like a god. 

The second biopic, Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV, focuses on an artist who not only shaped a field, but created one. Director Amanda Kim tells the story of Paik’s rise to international fame, where his works of video and performance art captured the imaginations of the art world and the public. Paik’s singular artistic vision made him the father of video art, and his engagement with the internet and its potential for communication and creation make him an essential figure in understanding today’s remix culture. Kim finely traces these influences, revealing how, while today’s TikTokers may not have seen a Paik work, they are undoubtedly influenced by him. Talking head interviews are often used as an uncinematic crutch in contemporary documentary filmmaking. Here, though, the interviews are used to capture the spirit and energies of the artistic communities in which Paik worked, which were essential aspects of his creative practice. Kim superbly balances the necessary biographical information with sequences from Paik’s own work. Moon is the Oldest TV captures the feel of Paik’s aesthetic, clearly conveying his unique style and values as an artist. This is documentary remix at its best, one that will hopefully serve as a gateway into Paik’s prolific body of work. 

CPH:DOX – Copenhagen International Documentary Festival
16-26 March 2023
Festival website: https://cphdox.dk/


  1. Sean Illing, “This is why evangelicals love Trump’s Israel policy”, Vox, 14 May 2018.