In one of the many engaging panel discussions on the “documentary arts”, as one filmmaker called them, at the 10th edition of Copenhagen’s international documentary festival, lead programmer Mads Mikkelsen hosted a chat with three young filmmakers about “hybrid cinematography”. In point of fact, at almost every panel discussion, seminar and networking event, including the festival’s burgeoning pitch forum, this word could be found, mentioned prominently in conversation after conversation: hybrid. To define what a hybrid film would look, sound, feel like, is CPH:DOX’s obsession. And when the people who program and produce the festival find things they like, they obsess in grand fashion by staging one of the most innovative and exciting events devoted to nonfiction cinema, as they have done for the past ten years. I attend quite a few festivals and I forget where the hell I am most of the time. Sometimes it doesn’t really matter. But when I’m at CPH:DOX, I never forget I’m in Denmark. As festivals become more profligate and more imitative, this strong sense of place matters more and more, I find.
In critic, filmmaker and curator Mark Cousins’ newly-released film festival manifesto, published at this year’s New York Film Festival in September, one of the things he states is this: “Film festivals should be naked in front of the innovative, divine, political, honest facts of life. They should lob a thought bomb to show that cynicism is a false lead, art is amazing, cinema is, as Roland Barthes sort of said, ‘light from a distant star.’” (1) (2)
Particularly from the nether world in which independent artists reside, the aesthetic divides and arguments continue to come in highly articulate packages since makers of works that fall between distinct genres have to spend a not insignificant amount of time thinking about how to position and market their films, as do festival programmers. The reason why conversations about the liminal creative spaces that exist between fictional stories and the heartbeat of something real are never ending, is because there are creatively intelligent people who keep insisting on pushing the boundaries of nonfiction storytelling until they snap and pop and reveal, perhaps, deeper truths about a genre that continues to leave a legacy of inspiration. Hybrid is hardly a new current in contemporary cinema. We can turn to the beginnings of documentary as a genre in cinema and find the genesis of this discussion.
What CPH:DOX has become renowned for, as well, due to brilliant and open-ended thinking on the part of its creative leader, Tine Fischer, is a parade of bright cultural thinkers, many of them not coming from the film world at all, but from an array of disciplines, both practical and artistic. Cousins’ manifesto also states: “Festival directors should use their most discrepant ideas: their funniest, most moving, sexiest thoughts about films.” Sometimes the sexiest people don’t know how sexy they are until someone tells them so. Sometimes the most innovative and personally driven films don’t know into which genre they fall until someone labels them . . . a documentary, a narrative, an installation, video art… or, something like a Broadway musical staged in a killing field, as Joshua Oppenheimer’s visceral and essential film, The Act of Killing, displays, in part.
The Act of Killing, about a skewed and surreal redemptive journey (of sorts) of some of the members of an Indonesian death squad, has received an abundance of exposure in Denmark where Oppenheimer now makes his home. It was released nation-wide in Danish cinemas fast upon the heels of its premiere at the festival and was also the festival’s opener, a high honour for a brand new film. The Danes are quite savvy in their cultural endeavours and even for an “adopted” Dane such as Oppenheimer, they pull out all the stops from being involved as early as the film’s development period to exhibition and distribution strategies, always starting at home first. The Danes are people who know their strengths quite well and as international in scope as this festival is, what I think is most impressive is that it is a distinctly Danish festival. There is a rare mix of melancholy and mischief in the Danish personality that is really unbeatable, where the grotesque and the beautiful, the tragic and the comic, the surreal and the suburban are interchangeable with one another, offering a very human experience in all of its aspects. Whether a filmmaker hails from Denmark or not, I think the programming reflects quite strongly that, all things being equal, every filmmaker who has work in the program is an honorary Dane for ten days.
When I return home from CPH every year, upon first glance, my notebooks from the festival read like dreamscapes, snippets of my whirling mind, what inspired me, what I learned, and how impressed as hell I was at how smart people were. There are three films, besides Oppenheimer’s, that for one reason or another, dovetail and illustrate so much of the diverse and scattered thoughts I had coming out of the festival this year. After watching so many movies, it becomes rare for something to stick and burn a bit into my brain matter. To my mind, the highest compliment I can pay someone for their work is saying, “I couldn’t get it out of my head.”
In wildly divergent ways, these three films gave me an impulse to want to, literally, enter the world of the film in some way. And this was distinctly due to their hybridity, naturally – or, to the hybrid style in which they were made. The stories are true; the people in the films really exist (or existed). Carol Morley’s Dreams of a Life played in the Top Dox section; the strand means to take a closer look at modern culture and Morley’s film is an autopsy of just that. The film is an emotional forensic exploration into one woman’s life, a woman found dead in her apartment three years after she had died there alone. Three years in which no one came looking for her, no one filed a report, no one noticed she was gone, really.
The main protagonist of the film is dead. How does a nonfiction storyteller bring her to life so that by the end of the film, a viewer is deeply affected by her story? And can identify quite strongly with her feelings and situation, particularly after learning about her from a circle of intimate friends, folks who worked with her, people who knew her in a more detached way, and her ex-lover and best friend? (The woman’s immediate family chose not to participate.)
What’s most proficient in Morley’s work is the seamless way in which she uses a very small, very well selected and well-timed amount of archival footage against the backdrop of her interviews, and the most wondrously directed and performed re-enactment scenes. I laughed as I caught myself thinking a few times: “I keep forgetting I’m watching a documentary!” I loathe people who say that and now here I am saying it. Appropriately, its lead actress, Zawe Ashton was nominated in the Most Promising Newcomer category at the British Independent Film Awards. She gives a heart-wrenching performance and because we’ve seen so little of the real Joyce Vincent, the name of the 38 year-old dead woman, we come to identify Ashton as the real Joyce even though we know that these are imagined scenes of Vincent’s life. So little is known of Vincent, the director literally gives her a life, post-mortem, in her film. Morley chooses to give the lion’s share of the narrative of her documentary to drama, making the direct interviews all the more urgent for their contemporary look and feel. The subjects are genuinely surprised by all of this for they have responded to an ad that the director posted all over the city (even on taxi cabs) to contact her if anyone knew anything about a Joyce Vincent. Her body wasn’t discovered for three years, surrounded by Christmas presents she had been wrapping, and with the TV still on—this is what the papers said. Some interviewees remember reading that article and still did not realise that it was about a woman they knew. Not only is this a portrait of a life, it’s also a portrait of the huge city of London in the ‘80s, about urban life, about how little we may ever know of the people around us, even the people closest to us. We may not even notice they’ve gone.
Another potent urban experience in film at the festival was Tchoulpitoulas, where the film’s directors, brothers Bill and Turner Ross, choose a palette and tempo that perfectly matches the city in which they film. Due to the lithe and confident camera work, the film becomes an immersive journey from a place that’s been looked at in such an ugly light for so long, ever since Hurricane Katrina. This represents both pre- and post-hurricane New Orleans, the film becoming both a nostalgic look back and a hopeful one forward, its story told through the eyes of young boys out for a nighttime ramble through the French Quarter with their trusty dog, Buttercup. All the elements are there for a fable-like tale of three boys in the Big Easy – the things they see, the people they meet, what they hear, what they eat (or only imagine eating since they’re broke). The Rosses stay close but once in a while, they break off from the boys to play with the lights that shine seductively against the loud, dark nighttime.
Turner Ross is highly articulate on how he and his brother and their small producing team work and why they do it that way. He talks about the notion of not documenting some-thing or some event, necessarily, but to try and document an experience, a certain time spent in a certain place – and that’s it. That is your movie. (3) They accomplished this to wonderful (although quite different) effect in their first film, 45365, about a small town in Ohio, the title’s numbers being the town’s postal code. But there wasn’t really a linchpin character as there is here since they found such a wondrous and wonder-filled young narrator. A portrait of a place or locale is just that, oftentimes, and many films of this stripe – cinematic cityscape, ode to a mountain, or what have you, were devastatingly boring. Beautiful to look at, to be sure, but beautiful photography becomes derivative wallpaper and this is where I tend to steeply depart from the tendency to encourage more fine artists to make feature-length nonfiction films. Some kind of urgent dramaturgy, even illustrated obliquely, is necessary to make a movie someone is going to want to sit through. I’m not sure how academic the conversation needs to get, but in whatever genre one chooses to work, by choice or by granting imperatives, the key component is still to encounter and engage an audience with one’s work. Or has this gone out of fashion while I wasn’t looking?
And then there’s a film that presents hybridity in the form of one person, a story of stolen identity or the “borrowing” of someone’s person to create a work of art. Dane, Max Kestner’s I Am Fiction is the last film I would anticipate sticking with me. But it was quite mind-bending to ascertain just what is real and what is not about this work, the person who made it and the person who appears in it. The scenario plays so eloquently with notions of art, reality, personhood and ownership of one’s own creative mind and spirit, this very Danish film could position itself as the poster child for this festival.
How to cinematise the robbery of someone’s identity as it’s turned into a sort of fiction? Kester hangs the narrative on a trial that takes place between Thomas Skade-Rasmussen Strøbech who brings a lawsuit against artist and colleague, Das Beckwerk and the publishing house that, in 2009, without Strøbech’s approval, published a novel called The Sovereign, which described his private life in meticulous detail. Kestner asks Strøbech to self-record during the process of the two-year trial.
As intimate as we get to be with Strøbech, Das Beckwerk is a slippery fellow and a haunting screen presence. He reminded me of a spiritual embodiment of Andy Warhol. Formerly known as Claus Beck-Nielsen, Das Beckwerk declared himself dead in 2001, and had a doll of himself buried at a very public funeral attended by thousands of people. When Strøbech, in a series of hilarious scenes, flies to New York to try to release the book in the US in an English translation with himself as the book’s author, we sense somehow that Das Beckwerk might have gotten to the three beleaguered publishers first.
Strøbech is an abstruse failure in just about everything life has to offer. He’s losing before he’s even entered the playing field. This makes him hugely likable and sympathetic and he becomes a most unlikely hero even when he’s filming himself completely intoxicated and acting like a total shithead. We even accompany him on a visit to a proctologist – from his POV. You can’t help getting close to this guy, especially after that. The camera work for the most part is abominable to the point of causing nausea at certain moments. Counter-intuitively, herein lies the piece’s beauty and substance.
This is a film that presents a story that takes place mostly inside the protagonist’s head. Everyone he encounters plays along for a certain time, but sooner or later, even his closest companions abandon him to his obsessions, for there is nothing more to be done, really. He loses his case (no spoiler here since one knows this is inevitable from the beginning) and then proceeds to have the oddest post-trial meeting with his alter ego, Beck-Nielsen, who has biked a long distance in the pouring rain to visit Strøbech. There sit two people looking at one another politely having tea on the couch, who have taken hybridisation to a new level, the hybridisation of their personalities. It says so much about the notion of crossing boundaries, a worthy endeavour so that we always can be in the midst of creating new platforms for works that scatter themselves across many artistic boundaries.
CPH: DOX, Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival
1 – 11 November 2012
Festival website: http://www.cphdox.dk/d/index.lasso
- Mark Cousins’ Film Festival Manifesto, Row Three, 8 November 2012
- BOMBLOG: FILM “Dancing With My Eyes Closed, a Conversation with Mark Cousins,” by Pamela Cohn, 25 October 2012
- Hybrid Cinematography, hosted by Mads Mikkelsen, CPH:DOX 2012, 7 November, “Instead of talking about documentary vs fiction, we would like to examine how cinematography regulates the experience of reality in some of this year’s most significant films.”