Those visiting Copenhagen for the first time to attend CPH:DOX, the country’s leading international documentary film festival, which ran from the 13th to the 24th of March this year, may be looking for its headquarters, as I was. They will quickly realize that the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, the event’s beating heart, is located directly across the street from one of the city’s most iconic landmarks: the colourful Nyhavn canal. Actually, all you have to do for an amazing sightseeing tour is walk from one festival venue to the next. Most of them are in the delightfully peaceful and traffic-free city centre, including the bustling Dagmar Teatret and the historic Grand Teatret. Walking from there, you’ll see the famous Rundetaarn oval tower and eventually reach the Cinemateket of the Danish Film Institute. Right in front of it is another tourist gem: the Rosenborg Castle. The open, relaxed and very welcoming atmosphere of Copenhagen blends with the lively festival ambience. Very busy but never hectic, CPH:DOX provides the ideal setting for showcasing its more than 200 films, including 84 world premieres. Along with an array of industry meetings centred around the CPH:Forum and CPH:Market for buyers and programmers, it also hosts an impressive line-up of public talks like the CPH:Conference. All of this creates an overall exciting vibe that is rounded out by daily drinks, get-togethers and a couple of extremely popular parties at night. If we take into consideration the festival’s daring and multifaceted curated program, its high profile talks and vivid Q&As, which often include film-related music acts – a specificity of CPH:DOX – its friendly, unhurried  atmosphere, its flawless organization, and its enthusiastic public, then it is no wonder why CPH:DOX has carved out a solid reputation as one of the most thrilling and adventurous documentary festivals in Europe and beyond. 

The program is broad but well organized into a number of different sections, creating interesting cross-references. This is why different films are grouped under further thematic units such as: Science, Urgent Matters or Sound &Vision, to name just a few. The selection offers a diverse range of approaches and styles, including classic investigative documentaries, intimate, original takes, and character-driven storytelling, as well as a series of ground-breaking film essays that question cinematic language and explore the fertile ground between cinema and the visual arts. This is mirrored in seven award sections: the international DOX:AWARD, NEXT:WAVE showcasing emerging artists and filmmakers, NORDIC:DOX, presenting non-fiction filmmaking from the Nordic countries, NEW:VISION, for artist’s films, the F:ACT AWARD, dedicated to investigative journalism films and the newly introduced  HUMAN:RIGHTS AWARD. Aware of what truly matters, artistic director Niklas Engstrøm, who has been running the event since 2021, curates each edition of the festival around a central theme. Running alongside the main program, this year’s focus was on two topics: “Body Politics”, launching a conversation about the body as a battleground and “Conflicted”, confronting the battles and wars that are raging around us. The festival experience was packed and intense, with only one drawback: there was too little time to take everything in. Definitely among the festival’s highlights were the concert by punk rock legend Pete Doherty, who was presenting Peter Doherty: Stranger in My Own Skin by Katia de Vidas, Peaches’ public talk about her film portrait Teaches of Peaches by Philipp Fussenegger, and Johan Grimonprez’s conversation about the connections between African American jazz, civil rights, and decolonization in his film, Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat.

The Stimming Pool

Limitation of living space ran like a common thread through a series of films that caught my attention. In the proper or figurative sense, space becomes the ultimate arena for freedom; evading the restrictions imposed by society becomes a duty. In their diversity, this is what the following films can teach us. Screened in the out of competition strand, Special Premieres, The Stimming Pool, co-created by The Neurocultures Collective and Steven Eastwood, was definitely one of the most stunning and imaginative festival entries. Beautifully shot on Super 16mm by cinematographer Gregory Oke, The Stimming Pool is a dazzling film experiment and a one of a kind sensory experience. We frequently see neurodivergent people being filmed by others; in this case, they are both in front of and behind the camera, each playing a crucial role. “Put yourself in our place, is the project’s starting point. Rather than a limitation, diversity is viewed here as an opportunity for neurotypicals to broaden their sensory perception of reality. Crafted through a unique collective approach, The Stimming Pool grew from the creative input of a group of neurodiverse artists: Benjamin Brown, Georgia Bradburn, Sam Chown-Ahern, Robin Elliott-Knowles and Lucy Walker. Supervised by film director and visual artist Steven Eastwood, they all shared their personal experiences, interests, and perspectives on how they see the world. The result was this hybrid, multifaceted narrative in which various stories intertwine to form a web of startling cross references. We never feel lost in this vibrant and vividly transforming universe. However, because our field of vision is saturated, and hearing is hampered by high pitch noise and excessively loud voices, there is frequent overwhelm. This approach enables the potential feeling of what a neurodivergent person goes through on a daily basis. In this inventive, delicately humorous work, the protagonists-artists are portrayed as colourful heroes in their own lives. Flamboyant, witty Robin Elliott-Knowles draws cartoons and runs a B-movie film club with panache. Sam Chown-Ahern bravely takes a diagnostic eye-tracking test. Lucy Walker, whose face we never see, creates a picture book in which her beloved dog Chess transforms into an autistic superhero who uses his special ability to save other people’s lives. Neuroqueer performance artist An(dre)a Spisto, on the other hand, portrays an office worker who walks around with earplugs, attempting to cope with her surroundings. When she gets home, she practices stimuli to eliminate the stress accumulated during the day to conceal her condition from others. Different styles, aesthetics, and techniques blend naturally, creating a unique atmosphere of wonder. In this film collage, classically made documentary bits flow into more staged scenes. Interior takes merge with street, office, or pub sequences. Drawings and cartoons meet with a fictional dog that appears as a human-like puppet on occasion, and a film within a film sequence opens up to a beautifully crafted animated tale. The narrative culminates in the most unusual ‘rave’ scene, with all of the film’s protagonists joyfully dancing, each to their own music, at the bottom of an empty swimming pool, free of all the social constraints of ‘normality’. The filmmaking team, who joined the audience at the end of the screening, were greeted with unbridled enthusiasm! 

Grand Me

While the characters of Stimming Pool face daily challenges in navigating a social and physical environment that is both intimidating and confining, the young protagonist of Grand Me (Atiye Zare Arandi) contends with the emotional limitations placed upon her. Precociously wise, outspoken, sassy but also sad and restless at times, Melina, an 11-year-old Iranian girl, brightens every frame of Grand Me. Through her bond and affection for Melina, filmmaker Atiye Zare Arandi, the girl’s aunt, creates the unique portrait of a child torn between custody battles, a universal and deeply rooted issue in today’s patriarchal Iranian society. Far from being a tale of woe, Grand me is a delicate, multi-layered film that captivated both the festival’s audience and the jury, winning the NEXT:WAVE section award. Everything revolves around the girl’s emotional journey and the intricacies of the adult world in which she lives. Over the two years of filming, Arandi’s direct access and proximity to the characters greatly contributed to the story’s unaffected atmosphere. Her sensitive approach embraces Melina’s point of view, even encouraging the girl, who dreams of becoming a filmmaker when she grows up, to film herself. Adapting to the child’s mobile phone-filmed sequences, the framing looks improvised and amateurish at times, adding to the movie’s intimate tone. 

The well-structured narrative begins and ends with a memorable conversation in a car between Melina and her mother Athifeh: “Why did you separate from my father?” The woman hesitates, and Melina says bluntly: “See, you don’t really know why, either!” The narrative starts two years earlier. Melina blows out the candles on her ninth birthday. She happily dances among many of the guests in her grandparents’ festively decorated Isfahan home, but her parents are absent. Her mother, who lives in Tehran with her new husband promises, on the phone, to visit her the following week, or later. Melina’s deception is heart-breaking. Her life consists of precise routes and tasks: school, rare visits she grudgingly pays her father, and occasional car rides with her mother. Much of her interaction with her estranged parents takes place over the phone. They have temporarily ‘parked’ her with her loving protective grandparents, avoiding responsibility. Both have remarried. The mother’s new husband is opposed to the child living with them, fearing that his teenage son will sexually molest her, while her father, who we never see, refuses to give Melina her passport, preventing her from travelling abroad. On the other hand, Melina’s school is governed by discipline and strict religious rules. According to Iranian law, girls come of age when they are nine. To celebrate this event, covered from head to toe in a white hijab, we see them all singing an anthem in praise of it, under the direction of a spirited Imam: “She who does not have her hair covered falls far from God!” Yet at home, Melina is a modern-day child. She plays, does her homework, throws tantrums, watches videos on her mobile phone, has her nails polished or films herself – like a true influencer – while giving a make-up lesson. In this complex situation, Melina survives through her child’s strength and imagination. She draws, dreams, confides things on her mobile phone and never stops claiming her parents’ care and affection. She even considers filing a lawsuit to be entrusted to her mother.  In the film’s final scene, she confronts Athifeh with all of the power of her troubled feelings: “Do you think we will always be tied to each other? No one is tied to anyone in this world. No one! Not even a child to their mother. Everyone is left to themselves!” Then, chuckling, she turns to her aunt, who is filming, and triumphantly declares: “I taught her a lesson. I tore her to pieces!” Avoiding sentimentality, Arandi creates a well-rounded portrait of a pained but pugnacious child who is far braver than her selfish adult parents, teaching us an unforgettable lesson in humanity. 

Preemptive Listening

The space we eventually live in is, in Preemptive Listening, one of acute danger. Directed, written, narrated and edited by Spanish artist Aura Satz, who travelled around the globe for seven years filming and recording sounds. Preemptive Listening, awarded the NEW:VISION prize, is a bold, sophisticated essay about the state of the world. Both disquieting and mesmerizing, filled with grandiose, troubling images and a wide variety of soundscapes that literally make me vibrate and tremble, the film creates a hypnotic, often nightmarish atmosphere, but one that also suggests a utopian future. Focusing on sirens, their function and iconic value, Preemptive Listening addresses environmental, social, mental, political and existential issues, while taking us on an immersive, sensory journey through a soundscape created with the contributions of 20 experimental artist-musicians including BJ Nilsen, Kode9, Debit, Moor Mother, Raven Chacon and Laurie Spiegel, with commentaries by experts, artists and political activists. Meticulously structured in 20 well defined sequences/episodes, the narrative develops through multiple intertwined layers, where images, sound and words create a complex canvas of cross references. As the film progresses, the plot takes us all over the world, exploring the many different aspects that emerge, reflecting on the meaning and implications of the siren sound, a sound of danger that urgently questions our place in space and time. 

Warning sirens for natural disasters, climate change catastrophes or industrial hazards can be found on an abandoned school ground in Fukushima, on a water tower in Lapland, inside the cooling towers of a power station in England, on a volcano monitoring station in Chile, and all along a nine-kilometre-long surge barrier in the Netherlands. These wide landscape takes are intercut with a series of almost abstract experimental sequences that explore interior spaces: a siren construction plant, a laboratory testing siren lights, and a water chamber checking the efficacy of an emergency light. These locations are used to highlight the role of the siren sound as a warning for wars, civil unrest, and as a police tool of mass control and repression. Images and soundscapes are intended to create a sense of discomfort by challenging our perception and hearing. I felt dizzy as I watched the camera drone zoom up and down in a zenithal position, circling and spiralling at the same time, while the frequent flashing light sequences create a sense of threatening disruption, and the piercing siren sounds confuse and disorient. In this state of prolonged emergency, it is precisely the human voice that we hear off screen that restores balance, creating a fertile ground for discussion. Unexpected perspectives and startling life experiences are shared throughout the episodes, forming a web of thought-provoking reflections. 

Marching in the Dark

Khalid Abdalla, an Arab Spring activist, A. Boykin and Niki Jones, co-creators of an organization for mental health emergencies, Māori law scholar Erin Matariki Carr, and environmental philosopher Arturo Escobar, they all see in the siren sound a signal of threat, crisis, and the indicator of political, or mental repression but, also: an unexpected chance for improvement, a signal of hope and new possibilities, a call to action, an opening to a future world of understanding. Marching in the Dark (Kinshuk Surjan) makes this point: backward social structures and cultural norms can severely limit our living space. Kinshuk Surjan’s debut feature film, which won a special mention in the Human Rights section, begins with these words: “Dedicated to the more than 400,000 women-farmers in India whose sons and husbands have died by suicide in the last 20 years.” They stand out on the black screen, opening the curtain on the never-ending tragedy of India’s rural world, devastated by droughts, ever-increasing production costs and catastrophically uncontrolled selling prices. The director, who has spent six years visiting a rural Maharastra community and gradually getting to know, understand, and win the trust of the people he films, offers us a thoughtful and profoundly moving first feature. With a realistic yet poetic touch, the film portrays the widows’ daily struggles with pain, loss, debt, hard work, and raising their children in a society that views them as outcasts and even bans them from attending religious festivals and events. To survive and move on in this rigidly patriarchal world, all of these women must carve out a place for themselves and their children, all under the watchful eyes of their late husbands’ families and neighbours. Their living space is very limited, both metaphorically and literally. It is precisely this sense of narrowness and harsh limitation that Surjan captures with a great deal of aesthetic and formal rigour. 

He tells this story with static shots, framing the faces and bodies of his female protagonists primarily through mid-shots and close ups, even in crowded settings. While this approach allows us to feel the texture of their skin, sense the movements of their bodies wrapped in the fabric that gently embraces them, and perceive the intensity of their pain and sorrow, it also convincingly depicts their isolation and seclusion. The story unfolds through a series of brushstrokes that sketch out the essentials, allowing for ellipses and emphasizing gestures, gazes, and words. The cinematography skilfully employs a subdued colour palette, playing with brown tones and a dim brightness, making skies appear greyish and overcast even when sunny, a telling contrast to the vivid colours and strong light that are more typically used to portray India. Crucial to the story is Sanjivani Tai, a young farmer’s widow and mother of two children. She is a veritable “mother courage”, whose perseverance is admirable from the start. Quietly but relentlessly, Sanjivani seeks solutions to her problems. While serving dinner to two male relatives, she claims to be taking a sewing class when, in reality, she has joined a local support group for women in similar situations, led by a compassionate psychologist. “Stop crying and start fighting!” exclaims an older, experienced widow to the group’s newcomers. At the first meeting, Sanjivani is unable to speak, but she gradually rebuilds herself. She struggles to find a job as an assistant in a clinic, while at home, in addition to working in the fields, she earns money from sewing, and is studying for her university entrance exam. Sanjivani’s story has an emotional arc and true development as we see her become more self-confident and, in time, ready to offer help and support to those who, like her, are affected by their husband’s suicide. 

Similar changes occur in the support group as the women start confiding in one another, are willing to share their experiences, let go of their sorrows, and even laugh and have fun together.  The taboos are enormous and, in a scene where they joyfully smear their faces with colour while celebrating Holi together, there is a ray of hope on the path to self-empowerment. Marching in the Dark is not a superficially militant movie, but a nuanced and, at times, even humorous portrayal of widows left to carry on alone while dealing with emotional turmoil and marginalization. Kinshuk Surjan’s film is an ode to women’s strength and resilience, a relevant, uplifting work that speaks to universal themes. 

The Flats

A housing complex can feel like a prison to its residents, full of gloom and harrowing recollections. Alessandra Celesia’s film The Flats, which won the DOX:AWARD, the top prize in the international competition, explores a rather unusual urban-social community: Belfast’s New Lodge estate. The result is an engrossing, multi-layered documentary about the residents’ long-lasting trauma from political violence. The lives of the characters in The Flats are in fact profoundly affected by this environment, which was the site of violent clashes between Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists during the Troubles. Within this well-defined space, people move back and forth along the same paths over and over again, reliving painful memories, prisoners of both their personal history and history in general. Staying true to their identity, battles and demons, the individuals portrayed in Celesia’s documentary struggle with their agony, confronting a past that has left indelible traces on their psyches and, in some instances, on their bodies, too. In an equally difficult present day, the brutality of civil war has given way to drug use and dealing, alcoholism and domestic violence. Step by step, Celesia thoughtfully ventures into the meandering rhythm of this place, probing the outer and inner worlds of its protagonists. The result is a precise cartography of the ‘collateral damage’ caused by the fratricidal conflict that raged in Northern Ireland between 1960 and 1998, and whose ashes seem to be smouldering still. 

The cinematography reproduces the leaden colour of the sky in the exterior shots and enhances light contrasts in the interiors, making them appear like a theatre stage, or a nightmare, depending on the example. Archival footage, shot in a blue tone, is used sparingly but effectively to convey a truthful feel of the era. However, Alessandra Celesia gives us a tale of resistance, dignity, and hope rather than one of failure or defeat. She skilfully combines raw emotion and deep introspection to focus her story on the day-to-day struggles of middle-aged Joe McNally. A troubled man, he was traumatized as a child by the memory of his 17-year-old uncle being killed by loyalists of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Since then, he has lived like a ghost, driven by a hopeless desire for vengeance. To tackle her subject, the director created a complex mise-en-scène that combines a grip on reality with scenes of re-enactment. At the centre of her meticulous project is a series of conversations between Joe McNally and Rita, a psychologist. During the sessions, Joe is finally able to find the words to face the demons of the past, talk about them, and possibly lay them to rest. A galaxy of neighbours and local friends moves around Joe, doing double duty as both themselves and various characters from the protagonist’s past in the re-enacted scenes. Jolene, a gifted young singer who plays Joe’s mother, and Angie, an elderly woman who embodies his grandmother, both carry scars from traumatic experiences that are difficult to put into words – and both are still plagued by the memory of their violent ex-husbands. The director expertly weaves this complex canvas, seamlessly integrating personal stories with larger community narratives, resulting in the poignant and troubling fresco of the Flats community. Beyond the characters’ vulnerability, Celesia reveals their unwavering resilience, using therapeutic storytelling to penetrate the depths of historical trauma, in the quest for hope and reconciliation.  

13 – 24 March 2024