Having peppered their program with fiction films since their first edition in 2003 – a time when doing such a thing was far less commonplace than it is now – Copenhagen’s non-fiction film festival CPH:DOX has long held a reputation for eschewing categorisation. This is most apparent in the NEW:VISION competition, a section designed to dismantle divisions between classifications of “artist” and “documentarían” and instead encourage convergences of these approaches. With works by makers as varied as Ben Rivers, Deborah Stratman, Zhou Chen, Rosa Barba, Yto Barrada, Basim Magdy and Tsai Ming-liang present in recent years, the section has had serious pedigree for a while, acting as a well regarded platform for outlier (and often peculiar) artists’ film operating in a non-fiction mode, or documentary work that could sit as comfortably in a gallery. This year’s competition – far from the festival’s strongest – perhaps displays the increasing popularity of this sort of boundary-blurring work, but also the pressures that this puts on programmers competing to source and select it.
Some weaker works were short conceptual experiments. Tova Mozard’s Cops Are Actors, whilst perfectly agreeable, is the sort of film that follows the trajectory its title suggests, but pushes no further. Several LAPD officers (some of whom also professionally act) stage surreal mock arrests in empty desert environments, making visible the performance behind police-work. Mozard captures the practised roles, gestures and acts that go into maintaining public order, without entirely considering their consequences. Also blackly comedic, Alex Da Corte’s Slow Graffiti is a near shot-for-shot remake of Jørgen Leth’s The Perfect Human, substituting the original’s human actors for a man in a Frankenstein’s Monster mask, whilst updating the monologue slightly and swapping the austere, self-serious stylings for something more colourful and absurd. 50 years after the original, Slow Graffiti adds little to a film that already functioned fine and retains its relevance. Within the gallery context it was first presented—surrounded by supplementary material in a carefully coordinated and colourful, neon-lit installation setting amongst sculptures, paintings, other films and objects—Slow Graffiti may have made more sense. In NEW:VISION, it felt somewhat slight. Camille Henrot’s Saturday, a 3D film focused on the Seventh Day Adventist Church, felt particularly facile. Interposing recordings of the churches’ rest-day activity with miscellaneous, abstract imagery (waves, food, medicine, all with perfunctory three-dimensional effects applied for no identifiable purpose), Henrot overloads each scene with scrolling onscreen text describing various disasters fearfully, as in a news broadcast, but intensified. Indulgent, unfocused and incoherent, Saturday scrambles towards meaning – exploring the dual sense of fear and hope inherent to fundamentalism, and the intensity that comes with feeling the imminence of apocalypse – but misses the mark. Worse than this though, it feels like budget blown without due consideration. In a climate where good ideas are plentiful and unrecognised talent readily available for recognition and reward, this also feels like ill distribution: money that could have been spent elsewhere, and a program slot that a less well-known artist could have benefited more from.
Others were frustratingly imprecise, faltered at their conclusions or felt otherwise incomplete. Metahaven (and Rob Schröder)’s Possessed continues the design duo’s interest in post-internet cultures, focusing on the proliferation of self-authored images and a contemporary society conditioned by always being seen. A digressive, unfocused visual essay that employs glitch art, drone cameras, augmented-reality, news-archive, and plenty of front-camera phone footage, alongside mismatched contributions from theorists Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek and performed segments with strikingly costumed actors; it is ambitious but lacking in clarity. Full of appealing, meaningless non-sequiturs like “our disease is called reality”, the film is incoherent and unconsidered, favouring distraction and abundance over the adoption of any firm, insightful position. Full of ideas firing in all directions; more than anything, it is a missed opportunity. Similarly scattered but considerably better, Barbara Visser’s The End of Fear explores the extreme responses that genuinely evocative art provokes. Starting from her own visceral response to Barnett Newman’s “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III” – an abstract painting destroyed twice, first by a vandal and then by those responsible for restoring it – Visser attempts to understand several things. Why this (or any) artwork should produce such intense reactions, and how that might be intertwined with the means of production itself: in the negotiation of authorship and ownership that can occur between ideation and execution during an object’s creation, and in the politics behind the purchase, presentation and restoration of the completed piece. Her conclusions fall somewhat flat, as does a much promised set-piece that never materialises, but the search proves puzzling and productive. Less an artist’s film than a film about an artist (and indeed about art itself) though not entirely effective, it proved an interesting counterpoint to the other films within the program, raising questions that were useful to think about when assessing the idea of what an “artists’ film” might or should be.
More interesting were two more recalcitrant films, unusual exercises that were difficult to pin down or describe. Beirut based artist and researcher Marwa Arsanios’ Who Is Afraid of Ideology? Part 1 was a clear example of this, a non-fiction film so consciously unorthodox in form and approach that it was a challenge to process. Documenting the Kurdish autonomous women’s movement who are living, learning and fighting in one of the country’s most inaccessibly mountainous regions, Arsanios takes the testimony of countless women all together, blending them into a single stitched monologue than runs without cessation, information-dense and exhausting to absorb. Alongside visual material that obfuscates faces and bodies and foregrounds the landscape, Arsanios effectively anonymises her contributors and strips personal statements of their individuality, emphasising the idea of “the collective” that the women in this guerrilla movement describe. At the end, Arsanios herself is seen, retailing an anecdote whilst riding in the backseat of a car. Why she appears is unclear, but in moving herself from behind the camera to a place directly in front of it, she affirms her role as constructor, as a shaper of these stories, after the density of all that proceeds this has ensured the viewer has forgotten this is something always occurring. Pakistani artist Basir Mahmood’s All Voices Are Mine was just as fascinating, if similarly difficult to work out. In it, a number of events occur on screen, each playing out in an obsessively composed long-take, and each ostensibly sensical but strangely off-kilter – real-world scenarios operating under a dream-logic. In these events (e.g. an old man falling off a horse, a large group of people repeatedly walking past each other) each participant is present but appears vacant, befitting Mahmood’s explanation that the scenarios are made from memories of the actor’s own past performances – actor as auto-exorcist, their body in a trance. Filming in a Lahore studio using a professional cast and crew, the film feels like a misremembered reminiscence of the Pakistani popular film industry’s heyday, Mahmood utilising the tools and tradesman of the glory era to stage a seance for a now long lost past.
A stronger proposition however was Gilad Baram and Adam Kaplan’s The Disappeared, a film about a film that does not exist, and also a film with no images. The film in question – which shares the title of Baram and Kaplan’s film – was shot by a Israeli Defense Force film production unit in 2000, censored before its release, and never seen since. Covering the contentious topic of soldier suicides, it is less the film’s disappearance that is surprising than the conditions under which it was produced. As one of the crew members says: “you can’t come from within the system and make a film about the system.” Contributors to Baram and Kaplan’s documentary – talking anonymously over varying hues of black and white, elements of the film’s score and other scene-setting sound effects – describe the production as “totally Apocalypse Now”, with an enormous budget and near infinite resources. As with Mahmood’s film, the point of interest here – beyond the incredulity of the story itself – is recollection, using documentary interviewing as a form of oral storytelling and exploring the fallibility of individual memory and the points of focus (and contention) that arise from collective memory. Unlike other films that make a point of containing few or no images (e.g Derek Jarman’s Blue, Douglas Gordon’s I Had Nowhere To Go), The Disappeared, beyond the strength of the sound design, does not feel entirely suited to the form. One reason for this – which is no fault of the filmmakers – is that their decision was not a choice. Compelling as it is, the film feels faltered by a frustration it cannot, by definition, resolve. A lost film can’t be seen, but the viewer is inclined to spend the duration hoping for, at the very least, a glimpse. A film dependent on an active viewer’s active imagination, the directors’ task is ambitious but noble, working with their collaborators to describe a film into existence, to work from memory to create a personalised projection inside each viewer’s mind.
Simplicity proved the most successful strategy within the strand, with some of the best films being the most straightforward ones. “Jamaica is a blessed place,” announces one of the many voices in Khalik Allah’s nation-portrait Black Mother, a simple, celebratory, and sometimes revelatory film built from a collage of lyrical and freeform conversational audio set to oft-stunning asyncronised, poly-format (Hi8, Super8, 16mm, HD) imagery. The subject’s statement is reinforced – as seen in the rich images of smiling, beautiful people, grand churches, vibrant foodstuffs and luscious landscapes – but Allah does not shy from Jamaica’s more rough-edged aspects. Channeling contributors on the country’s exploitative (political, religious, criminal, sexual) practices too, the film foregrounds a genuine diversity of voices and topics, valuing all. Simpler still, Pia Rönicke’s wonderful Word For Forest traces the roots of plantlife found in Copenhagen’s own botanical gardens to its origin in Mexico’s Oaxaca mountains, a site with especially high biodiversity and, not-coincidentally, committed protective measures from the local community. Filming the wildlife attractively on monochromatic 16mm, Rönicke includes insightful, plainly spoken commentary from two experts from the region alongside stuttered on-screen text note quotations, all musing differently on the forest and its history and future. As a plea for better conservation of the earth’s natural environments, Word For Forest is all the more effective for its gentility and quietude; pleasurable, but tinged with urgency. Similar but harsher, Tinne Zenner’s Nuuk, Greenland set Translations – the result of a residency there – combines cinematography of the area’s built and natural environments with a soundtrack of jagged, juxtapositional drone. Looking to chart what she calls “glitches in translations of culture”, Zenner captures contrasts in the area – modern housing developments containing traditional craftsmen, for instance – as evidence of ongoing battles between the indigenous population’s attempts to preserve tradition and Denmark’s insistence on enforcing a modernity unbefitting to an area so specific and so remote. The film’s impact outlasts its short duration.
One work stood alone, rightly recognised with the jury’s eventual award. The competition’s finest film, Jumana Manna’s Wild Relatives, displayed complexity, sensitivity and precision beyond anything else included. Set across Syria, Lebanon and Svalbard, the film investigates the networks involved in the production, proliferation and preservation of the world’s seed supplies, and the political (and logistical) nuances that complicate this international agricultural infrastructure. Centred around the ICARDA program, designed to cultivate a store of seeds accessible in the event of biological disaster, Manna’s reach is wide, but her approach is obsessively focused. She looks at microscopic details: localised trading, testing and transfer of specific grains; but also the larger issues in global industrial agricultural: crop modifications, cross-breeding and climate change. Both artful and informative, Wild Relatives mixes humble, aesthetically pleasing observational visual material with an intelligent and politically astute central monologue, one that questions what taking ownership over something as fundamental as food can entail. An impressive film, it is exactly the sort of thing that NEW:VISION should contain, an intellectual, insightful and intensely well researched project that effectively and unpretentiously combines an artist’s approach with a documentary method.
15-25 March 2018
Festival website: https://cphdox.dk/en/