When reality starts to look increasingly like a dystopian sci-fi film, how does a film festival concerned with the documentary genre respond? For CPH:DOX, the line between fiction and non-fiction was never clear-cut. Since its inception in 2003, the Copenhagen-based documentary film festival has been consistent in championing an expanded definition of the nonfiction form as well as nurturing a curiosity towards genre-bending and cross-disciplinary documentaries. Over the years, this approach has helped redefine and expand the notion of what documentary cinema is and could be, perhaps viewing documentary more as a method rather than a specific genre. This year, the festival was one of the first large cultural events in Denmark to be affected by the global COVID-19 shutdowns, and CPH:DOX itself had to shapeshift and rethink what a documentary festival is and could be. With its usual rebellious can-do-attitude, the entire team behind CPH:DOX managed to reformat the entire festival into an online program with over 140 documentaries, live-streamed daily talks, debates and a 5-day conference program.
What this will mean for the programming of the festival in the future is still hard to tell. Moving the films to the virtual realm has likely helped the films reach a more widespread and diverse audience than just the regular, urban festival crowd. As an incarnated cinephile, however, the experience of spending CPH:DOX in my personal COVID-19 bunker only highlighted the preciousness of the film festival as a site-specific, collective event; of watching documentaries in a cinema specifically designed to create an immersive, communal film experience where faces are lit up by the same rectangular light projection in a dark, magical space. The jittery excitement of a filmmaker sharing a film with an audience for the first time or post-moviegoing chats with friends and fellow festivalgoers. Watching an endless stream of moving images in solitude on my laptop at home, I was reminded of French thinker and film-lover Jacques Rancière’s observation that:
…if we limit ourselves to the shots and procedures that form a film, we forget that cinema is an art as well as a world, and that those shots and effects that fade in the instant of projection need to be prolonged and transformed by memory and words that give consistency to cinema as a world shared beyond the material reality of its projection.1
What does it mean to attend a collective event like the CPH:DOX film festival in solitude at home? How does it affect the overall viewing experience, and perhaps even the assessment of the documentary genre and its limitations and possibilities? Somehow, the films that stayed with me this year were specifically about themes such as loneliness, self-isolation, domesticity, and precarity. Or films with a diaristic, autobiographical impulse. Go figure. But the films that made a lasting impression were also specifically films that were engaging not just because of their subject matter, but because of their formal, aesthetic choices that provoke or provide new fresh ways of seeing reality. Perhaps this also testifies to some of the potentialities of documentary cinema. That such films can be really good conversation partners in difficult times. They can make distant places and realities sensuous and present, thereby reducing geographical, demographic or mental distances between people. When reality becomes increasingly unreal, they can provide comfort and care just by showing the inherent surrealism and unpredictability of everyday life.
A Shape of Things to Come
No film at this year’s CPH:DOX seemed more on point than J.P. Sniadecki and Lisa Marie Malloy’s hermit story, A Shape of Things to Come, which screened as part of the main competition program. The sparse documentary fable chronicles the solitary life of Sundog, a grey-bearded original who lives in self-imposed isolation in the Sonoran Desert near the Mexican border. The film delivers no clear background story or plot, but instead immerses the viewer in Sundog’s everyday life: The camera drifts around him as he wanders in the desert with a shotgun on his back, reads a book in his makeshift home or collects psychedelic venom from a toad. Shot in a mode of ethnographic filmmaking characteristic of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, where Sniadecki emerged as a filmmaker, the film is a sensory, visceral testimony to Sundog’s habitat and his cohabitants in the desert; toads, bats, wild boars and rattlesnakes.
This drifting approach achieves an ambiguous, intriguing portrait of Sundog and his relationship to nature. His unsentimental killing of animals, eccentric demeanour and wordless communication of grunting and cooing throughout the film suggests an almost premodern relationship with nature: Sundog is not living in nature, but simply part of nature. Watching his ascetic lifestyle on screen seems to satisfy a very contemporary longing for a lost, “authentic” relationship with nature. But Sundog’s stern assessments of human civilisation and his willingness to defend his “own” territory with a rifle provides a darker undercurrent to the story: Is he really a progressive anarchist-hippie living in pact with nature or simply a paranoid “prepper” defending his own territory? A radical, utopic model for sustainable living or a dystopic vision of what’s to come if we continue with business as usual? The opening drone-shots and the US surveillance towers looming in Sundog’s desert milieu suggest that even at the fringes of civilisation, there is ultimately no escaping its destructive tendencies.
Through its open, sensory approach to its subject matter, the film poses fundamental questions about the relationship between man and nature, between individual and society without moralist judgements or didactics. In these times of social distancing and self-isolation, the role of culture and companionship seems to play an especially interesting role in Sundog’s fable. Even in his voluntary solitude and eager wish to live apart from civilisation, we see Sundog calling friends begging them for companionship, going to the library to take out new books and enjoying classical music in his desert home. Perhaps all people have a basic need for sociality and culture, and perhaps this is ultimately what defines us as humans? There is something comforting in the fact that even for a professional hermit like Sundog, the loneliness and isolation can sometimes become too overwhelming.
The Autobiographical Essay Film: Heimat is a Space in Time, South and IWOW: I Walk on Water
In contrast to the explorative, observational cinema of A Shape of Things to Come, this year’s festival also showed a strong vein of personal, essayistic work where the filmmaker becomes the unifying voice that ties disparate stories or images together. For those who didn’t yet see Heimat ist ein Raum aus Zeit (Heimat is a Space in Time) at previous festivals, this was an opportunity to experience Thomas Heise’s mesmerising, novelistic magnum opus where letters, diaries and notes from his personal family history are intertwined with archival images and haunting black-and-white shots of trains, trees, roads and other desolate spaces from present-day Germany. Using Heise’s own family through four generations as a prism, the film unfolds as a captivating cinematic meditation on Germany’s history throughout the 19th and 20th century.
The short film South by Morgan Quaintance was another noteworthy film with an autobiographical, essayistic impulse. The film, which won this year’s NEW:VISION award dedicated to art films and video art, examines anti-racist and anti-authoritarian liberation movements in southern communities – from Chicago’s South Side and South London (both places where the filmmaker himself has lived) to the American Deep South and South Africa during the apartheid. Freely associating between anti-racist struggles across different continents and decades, the film juxtaposes black-and-white images spanning 16mm recordings, Google street-view images and MRI-scans. The hopeful concept that weaves all these images together is an idea of “collective voice as a mechanism for change”, as one of the protagonists in the film states. The film’s biggest merit is this anti-didactic and hopeful approach to the subject. Quaintance creates a poetic assemblage of images where we as viewers are free to connect the dots between disparate visual and sonorous material. But this is potentially also the film’s Achilles heel. Because the film moves so freely across historical time periods and geographical locations, the notion of collective voice becomes somewhat opaque. If the local context or specificity of political and social struggles is ignored, isn’t there a risk that the representation loses some of its precision and hence relevance?
Despite considerable differences in length and style, South shares similar themes with artist-photographer Khalik Allah’s lengthy IWOW: I Walk on Water. Like South, Allah’s film is a polyphonic stream of voices and images deeply concerned with questions of anti-racist struggles and systemic injustice. However, he approaches these questions from a much more personal, situated perspective. Although IWOW: I Walk on Water mixes footage from many different sources, the heart and epicentre of the film is situated on the corner of Harlem’s 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York, where many of Allah’s recent projects have also been conceived. The fundamental element of the film is Khalik Allah’s signature portraits of people shot at nighttime in the streets of Harlem – where the interpersonal relationship between photographer and the portrayed is an integral part of the film. The image and sound of the portraits are kept asynchronous, separating speech from speaker, which creates a fragmented, collective report from a community in Harlem plagued by drugs, poverty and trauma passed on from generation to generation.
But the film keeps evolving in unsuspecting ways that gradually complicates the relationship between photographer and the portrayed until it becomes increasingly clear that the film is as much a self-portrait as a collective street portrait of a community in Harlem. Khalik Allah’s friendship with the schizophrenic, homeless man Frenchie occupies a central position here. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, a conversation between Allah and his mother (titled tongue-in-cheek as “Reason”), the mother expresses her worries about his behaviour and his choice of bringing Frenchie home to her house. Her unease is not lessened when he responds by claiming that he is in fact Jesus and then goes on to admit that he is high on psychotropic mushrooms. From that scene on, the film is increasingly a refreshing, brutally honest portrait of the filmmaker himself, with Frenchie as reluctant, unruly muse and comrade. The tenderness and closeness between the two are palpable, but the transactional aspect of their relationship and of Allah’s motivations behind his obsession with Frenchie complicates the representation. Does Allah see himself as a Jesus-like figure out to “save” his friend, or does he identify with Frenchie’s life-long struggle to survive or to “walk on water” in a society marred by vast social and economic inequalities? Allah’s all-encompassing presence in the film is overwhelming at times, but the raw vulnerability and honest self-reflection of the film makes it one of my most memorable experiences at this year’s festival. Paradoxically, the specificity and navel-gazing perspective of Allah lends the film its relevance and scope, whereas the almost-too-extensive focus of South makes the film less graspable for me personally.
Documenting Domesticity: Daddy and I Love You, I Miss You, I Hope I See You Before I Die
In the Danish premiere section, two notable documentaries tackled intimate questions of parenthood, care and domesticity in new and nuanced ways – albeit viewed from two very different perspectives and social classes. In Eva Marie Rødbro’s compelling feature I Love You, I Miss You, I Hope I See You Before I Die, the director has once again chosen Betty as the subject of her film, a young woman who also starred in her 2010 short film I Touched Her Legs. This film is an intergenerational portrait of three women: Betty, her young daughter Jade and her mother Wilma, who all live in the same collective of people in a milieu challenged by poverty, precarity and substance abuse in a suburb of Colorado. Rødbro portrays her characters and their struggles with an eye for detail and an unprejudiced camera. The aesthetic approach – with its restless editing and close-ups of pink plastic toys, tongue piercings and nocturnal scenes with glowing red pupils – stays true to the aesthetic of her subjects and their world without fetishising it.
Lars Leonhardt’s Daddy is a perceptive portrait of the American anthropologist Brendan and his newfound role as a father and caregiver in a new country, having found a Danish girlfriend he has a baby with. Through the film’s voiceover, the anthropologist turns his anthropological gaze inwards and gives a meta-commentary on his parental role with plenty of self-irony but a liberating lack of self-importance. Feelings of loneliness and the potential claustrophobia of domesticity seep through both filmic representations. In Leonhardt’s film, the main character lacks the social support system of friends, family and a secure job situation, and therefore feels somewhat trapped. In Rødbro’s film, the three generation of women all survive their precarious home situation by escaping into drug abuse, video games or fantasies of invisible ghosts. In both films, familial love and existential anxiety are not opposites, but two sides of the same coin.
Online 18-29 March 2020
Festival website: https://www.cphdox.dk/