Though only in its 14th year, Danish documentary festival CPH:DOX’s profile has continually grown, so much so that the festival now proudly calls itself “the third largest documentary film festival in the world”. Despite being a festival known for the idiosyncrasy of it’s selected material – documentaries that hybridise, challenge or disrupt expected forms – the festival has continued to increase its visitor figures, both on the industry (1,784 guests) and public (just under 100,000 admissions) sides. Taking a year’s hiatus and moving the festival dates from November to March for this new edition, the festival has distanced itself from competition with IDFA, one of those two “larger” doc-festivals and a competitor both in mission and proximity. With this, room for more world premieres, more attention spent on their seminars, labs and market initiatives, a new “propeller” lab for projects involving a tech-film crossover, and all manner of other metrics and innovations deemed merit-worthy within the cultural capital currency system of international film festivals.
Despite these distractions the focus must be on the films, and the 2017 festival offered a veritable cross-section, the sort of program where you can dip into almost any strand or sidebar and find something that is, at the very least, interesting in some way or another. There might have been a familiarity in the higher profile, audience-drawing fare – with a trio of prizes for Syria docs Last Men in Aleppo, Radio Kobani and City of Ghosts, and a deluge of similar sounding docs about European politics – but overall, there was commendable variation of curation, whether in films by artists working in a documentary modes in NEW:VISION, first time filmmakers on show in NEW:WAVE, investigative journalism pieces up for the F:ACT Award, or in the music docs, accompanying concerts and a strand guest-curated by musician Anohni. In lieu of any major connecting principles, the following are a few miscellaneous highlights from a long weekend of pick and mixing, of trying to get a sense of all that was on offer within a program as wide-reaching and variable as this.
One of the strongest films on offer was Claire Simon’s The Graduation. Playing something like a Frederick Wiseman film, Simon’s observational documentary gives fascinating insight into the people behind the process of admission to Paris’ prestigious film school La Fémis, an institution whose alumni include Theo Angelopoulos, Claire Denis and Alain Resnais. Vying for an extremely limited number of places, prospective students to La Fémis are subjected to a gruelling process of lengthy interviews and written or practical examinations, an all-day affair that weighs heavily on both student and examiner. Observing both these entrance processes and the acceptance committee’s private discussions, Simon crafts a remarkably compelling portrait of the school from simple means; combining access and patient, direct observation of process in a manner that, for its straightness and lack of formal concern, has become unpopular of late.
Sequencing brilliantly to create micro-narratives out the seemingly innocuous, what Simon records proves fascinating, a seemingly endless process of discussion, disagreement and frustration that sees examiners weigh their varying interpretations of the student’s personality and potential against their personal biases and those of the school. It’s rare to see an interview in process – something that is intimate and vulnerable by nature especially when it doesn’t go well – but rarer still to see the feedback, the informal assessment (and sometimes assassination) of character that can never make it to official statement. As arbiters of culture who are well aware of the simultaneous privilege and peril of their position, after nearly two hours of exhaustive debate over all manner of factors, both related to and external of the student and their aptitude, it starts to seem more simple. “They’re in because I like them.”
Similar in conceit but more cunningly constructed was Guidi Hendrikx’s Stranger In Paradise, another classroom exercise. Hendrikx’s three-act film gives recent arrivals to the Netherlands (and viewers looking in) a lesson in the complexity, brutality and bureaucracy of refugee politics in Europe. After a bracing, pacey barrage of introductory archive-narration juxtaposition that gives a compressed history of Europe’s colonial impositions and subsequent migratory patterns, these three acts see an immigration official greeting refugees and going through the processes of achieving official residency in the Netherlands, in considerably different ways.
In the first, most confrontational segment, the officer is abrasive and accusatory, charging the refugees with the economic impact of their arrival, and blaming them for increases in secular violence in Europe, emphasising the cruelty of right-leaning “rationalism”. In the second, he’s warmer, speaking optimistically of their contributions to a world without borders in a manner that seems to probe at ideas of the “unrealistic liberal”. The third act, in which he “plays by the rules”, is the most interesting, showing the bureaucracy of the process. In it, he rounds a room of 40 migrants down to the three who are to be granted residency through a series of eliminatory questions that deduce whether their country is deemed safe (and therefore exempt), the reason for their arrival, and whether they are deemed both credible and worthy.
In the first two acts, Hendrikx and his actor explore ideology, perspective and interpretation. It looks into how we respond to this crisis by either distancing ourselves from it or making it personal, by focusing on specifics that distort the overall picture, or by warping data and information to fit our particular understanding. Yet, despite the hostility and prejudice displayed in the first “character”, it’s the officer in the third act who is the most horrifying, he who calmly follows the official order, classifying and categorising people until they’re entirely dehumanised in the way that bureaucratic systems force us to.
An epilogue that sees the officer talking to real refugees passing by the “set” about his experience of filming reveals, in case it wasn’t yet clear, him to be an actor and these situations a simulation. “So how does the film help us, the immigrants?” they ask. His reply is fumbled, something about letting people see the reality of what is occurring, and perhaps thinking more about their complicity in it. Whether you agree or not with Hendrikx’s methods or the validity or purpose of them, this is a more original and effective attempt to engage with the issues than most, or rather, to instigate viewers to reflect on them themselves. Amongst of a deluge of more simplistic, unipolar and digestible docs on the topic, this is very welcome.
A film that has been making waves since it’s premiere (launched at Sundance in January and recognised with a Special Jury Award, and acquired by Netflix whilst at CPH in March) is Yance Ford’s intense, powerful and deeply confrontational Strong Island. A personal investigation into the murder of the director’s brother, some 25 years after the event, Ford’s profound and personal film explores individual and collective accountability; and the prevalence with which the murder of black people has, and continues to, occur with impunity and in plain sight. More than this though, the film explores how an event like this weaves itself into the fabric of the existence of those it affects, how such an infringement serves to fracture families and destabilise minds.
“Am I saying what I really mean?” Ford opens reflexively. Adopting an unrepentantly intense form of inquiry that is taxing on the viewer but demanded by the material, Ford utilises a first person address that makes his experience central. By speaking direct to camera; recording phone calls (one in particular is excruciatingly intimate); leafing through family photos in top down P.O.V.; or interviewing his mother in her kitchen, Ford examines the case and how systemic factors continue to ensure that his brother’s murderer has evaded any culpability, whilst exploring the psychological toil evinced by this lack of closure. Whilst all of this is effective, it is the creative inversions of the extant formula (which be spoilt by disclosure) that are most brilliant, moments of breakage that smoulder with anguish and intensity, and flip the perspective from Fords back onto the audience.
A particular powerful moment emphasises poignantly how totalising white supremacy can seem. Ford finds solace in personal guilt, choosing to placing accountability upon himself rather than face the ubiquity of the persecution of his people as an unavoidable and insurmountable truth. Something so vast offers little closure, and however much it may hurt, bringing the complicity back close to home at the very least offers an answer of some kind, something to grasp onto. What’s most troubling about Strong Island is not how shocking any of the revelations are, but how familiar they seem, how entirely ordinary this sort of multilayered brutal injustice explored has become. Strong Island resists that by taking back control of the narrative, turning a news story into a personal one.
Two other films at CPH explored dark undercurrents of America: Peter Nicks’ examination of the disastrous collapse of the Oakland Police Department, The Force; and Mitchell Stafiej’s study of an excommunicated son of “protestant fundamentalist religious group” The Plymouth Brethren, The Devil’s Trap. With The Force, Nicks embedded himself within the county’s police department for two years, following officers through administrative processes, training procedures, media conferences and out onto the streets. The US police force has a deservedly bad reputation, but having been under federal supervision for 11 years after a series of particularly reprehensible grievances, public mistrust towards the Oakland department is especially high. Nicks’ focus is on the department’s response to this, their investment into training officers on how to keep “in line with where the discussion is at right now”. Through media strategy, community liaison and awareness measures, the officers are given, alongside their regular training, a course as much in how to police correctly as in how to be seen to be doing so. How to ready themselves as public officials in an era where an officer’s actions are likely to be recorded and held up to scrutiny.
For a while it seems like this reform might be working. There are little signs of the sort of exploitation or imbalance that plagues any institution brandishing this kind of power, and minimal observed resistance to this new approach to law enforcement from within the ranks. All the while Nicks remains a neutral observer, so much so that the viewer will inevitably question his intentions – is he trying to exonerate the department, expose it, or neither? Eventually however, all of these visible displays of improvement are exposed, as the end of Nicks’ involvement with the force (2014-16) coincides not just with the Black Lives Matter efforts running parallel to the film that become increasingly central, but with the Oakland force’s total implosion. A series of “officer-involved shootings” and a prostitution scandal cause to management to clamber over each other to resign whilst the department falls apart, and Nicks left with a film that is forced to fold in on itself, detailing a reform that is never going to happen. Considering the difficulty of maintaining the neutrality of his position, Nicks manages fairly well, humanising the individual officers who adhere to their duties, whilst condemning the institution that has markedly, criminally, and continuously, failed to.
In The Devil’s Trap, Stafiej takes on a similar search with his participant, also looking for the humanity behind something institutionally destructive. His lead, Lane, is a 25 year-old naval officer, who, having been excised from his community – “a very exclusive church-slash-cult” – for not abiding by their strict regime and isolationist doctrine, seven years later wants nothing more than to reconnect. Stafiej follows him along a three week long road trip back home and through his past, acting as driver, guide, advisor and emotional confident, all the while navigating that strange, perilous line between friend, with his best interests in mind, and filmmaker, who is looking for the most exciting material. Consisting mostly of conversations whilst driving or walking around sites of past significance, Stafiej struggles to find ways to visualise something so testimonial based, so reliant on memories and the exorcism of them through dialogues. Stronger is the relationship between filmmaker and participant. Stafiej and Lane are good friends, and despite the trauma of his youth and the scars that remain, Lane is vibrant and vital as a camera presence, animated and able to describe his experiences comfortably to camera.
The major hook here is access, if peripheral, to the cult – known as North America’s most secretive religious organisation, a closed society that sees the devil’s influence in everything from cinema to cellphones, as well as interaction with any other than their own. Yet, what is more interesting than anything divulged about the cult is its impact upon Lane, the conflict he holds between revelling in the freedom from its damaging constraints and dependence upon and duty towards those he loves. Several fracture points emerge. The mental reawakening is so strong upon a visit to his old, now empty home that it becomes bodily, inducing a vomiting that seems like a literal purging of ghosts of the past; and a late film meeting with his estranged brother has similarly seismic effects on both of them. One of Lane’s new friends, also an escapee from the cult, states that he “lost emotions… with so much trauma, you lose emotions”. Ultimately, with help from Stafiej, Lane rediscovers his emotions, explosively, heart-wrenchingly, and hopefully cathartically.
Also obliquely biographical, three diaristic docs also stood out, all three appearing in the festival’s new first time filmmaker competition NEW:WAVE, with one emerging as the eventual winner. Played together, Pepe Guttiérez’s I Promise You Never To Come Back and Esther Wellejus’ You Are Still Somebody’s Someone both use a diary mode to explore a sense of loss, Guttiérez’s travelogue mourns a lost love (or one yet he is yet to find?) and Wellejus’ memory-diary laments the estrangement of her father, examining how mental illness, religious indoctrination and misunderstanding led him astray and split apart a family.
Announcing that he is “making a film about how to lose time”, Guttiérez frames his inquiry within a 1:1 format, inscribing square video portraits of the areas he visits with yellow subtitled captions, scrawled witticisms, contemplations and musings like “past is an old fashion present” that act as polaroid postcards sent from filmmaker to the viewer. The mode is inquisitive, formalist, like something from a recent Jean-Luc Godard film. Conversely, Wellejus starts more plaintively, “here I am with a time that’s all broken,” immediately evoking Jonas Mekas. To match, Wellejus’ visual thinking arrives as a mix of gorgeous 8mm abstract flickerings, cassette recordings and overlain narration. Guttiérez’s observations are youthful, nervous, and full of doubt and hope. Wellejus’ sense of things is much more mature, realisations made from the other side of trauma. Both find ways to realise their inner minds, ways to use a documentary mode to vivify and externalise what lies beneath.
Similarly stylised, the cryptic, confounding 1996 Lucy and the Corpses in the Pool offers little resolution to the puzzle of its title, but captivates through the search. Opening with a grainy, foreboding forest-at-night sequence straight out of The Blair Witch Project, Marcos Migliavacca and Nahuel Lahora’s film starts ominously, though this proves to be mostly an act of misdirection. Though not horror, 1996 Lucy does retains a found footage, VHS aesthetic throughout, offering the sense that the viewer is bearing witness to something that shouldn’t necessarily be observed, something found and pieced together, something where that which is observed may or may not be what it seems.
Leaving their menial jobs for a momentary escape, two young women jump in a car and barrel down the motorway to a weekend retreat. Arriving at a country house converted into a music festival, DIY indie-punk bands fill out enormous rooms, visitors slam beers in the kitchen, and new-age gurus offer massages and mysticism in the gardens, whilst in a nearby forest, televisions broadcast signal-noise ominously and inexplicably. The whole affair is captured – with remarkable aesthetic and formal control – through the omnipresence of the handheld Hi-8 camera. Lax, languid and lucid, Migliavacca and Lahora’s film, whilst loose and lumbering, has a distinct and indefinable rhythm, a fluidity with which the unexplained scenarios are depicted that ensures the mystery remains compelling.
As day moves into night, lights blur, colours flash and the camera moves balletically around this ethereal environment, this folk retreat for the urban wearied that exists just a short road trip away from the city’s drudgery, geographically near but sensorially distant. Who is following and filming these two women, and why? Is the footage found, staged or natural? Is the sound direct or post-recorded? Where’s the pool, and what happened to the corpses? Much like Dean Fleischer-Camp’s recent and tangentially similar YouTube-sourced, narrative-manipulation Fraud, it’s almost better not to know. The participants of 1996 Lucy seem no more clued in than the viewer. “We’re here for something,” announces one of the women. Exactly what, remains unclear.
CPH:DOX – Copenhagen International Documentary Festival
16-26 March 2017
Festival website: https://cphdox.dk/en/