Real Genius


Left: Gonçalo Tocha, It’s the Earth, Not the Moon, 2011, still from a color film, 183 minutes. Right: Ruben Östlund, Play, 2011, color film, 118 minutes. Production still.

ONE ONTOLOGICAL QUESTION comes up with surprising regularity at CPH:DOX, the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival: What is a documentary? An apt rejoinder at this ambitious, admirably open-minded event might be: What isn’t? On the one hand, the programming at CPH:DOX, which ventures far beyond what many would consider documentary, is a response to the state of the art and the industry: It reflects the continuing rise of the so-called hybrid film and represents a provocative attempt to shake up a sector of the film world where matters of aesthetics are often actively ignored. On the other hand, it’s a return to first principles, a reminder of the attraction to the real that has been hard-wired into the medium from the very beginning. The earliest documentarians, like Robert Flaherty or Dziga Vertov, were in many ways also the form’s greatest innovators, and at its best, a festival like CPH:DOX reaffirms the long-standing connection between documentary and experimental film.

In keeping with that implicit mission, the top award at this year’s edition, the festival’s ninth, went to the increasingly prolific and distinctive Ben Rivers for his first feature-length film. Two Years at Sea is a gentle evocation—part document, part fantasy—of an off-the-grid, out-of-time existence in the Scottish forest, and a lovingly handmade work in every sense, from its hermit hero’s constructed world to the silvery, processed black-and-white images. (For three straight years now, the main prize has gone to a film that could just as easily be classified as fiction: last year to Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte, and in 2009 to Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers.) Other highlights from the competition included Ruben Östlund’s Play, a supremely controlled Michael Haneke–like fiction inspired by actual cases of juvenile delinquency in Göteborg, and the Portuguese director Gonçalo Tocha’s three-hour It’s the Earth, Not the Moon, the most quixotic and generous of ethnographic projects, raptly fascinated with all aspects of daily life on the tiny, remote mid-Atlantic island of Corvo.

Alongside the main competition, a section called New Vision—I served on its jury this year—encompasses disparate experiments from the visual art and film worlds. The works here ranged widely in formats and genres, from installation loop (Omer Fast, with the recent Venice Biennale entry 5,000 Feet Is the Best) to vérité (René Frölke’s Führung, a sly chronicle of German president Horst Köhler’s visit to a Karlsruhe art school), from retro science fiction (Romeo Grünfelder’s The Contingency Principle) to modern-day surrealism (João Rui Guerra da Mata and João Pedro Rodrigues’s visit to a Macao market, Red Dawn). Our prize went to the French filmmaker Philippe Grandrieux for It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve, a sketch of the Japanese avant-gardist Masao Adachi that approaches a platonic ideal of biographical portraiture, affording the sense of one singular artist in communion with another.

Ben Rivers, Two Years at Sea, 2011, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm blown up to 35 mm, 86 minutes.

Amid a packed program that strayed frequently from the screening room—a live YouTube battle, music and multimedia performances (by synth-pop avant-gardist John Maus, among others), a concurrent moving-image exhibition at the National Gallery of Denmark titled “Re:Constructed Landscapes”—the most resonant pleasures of the festival could be found in the carte blanche selections of guest curators. Nan Goldin, invited to reinterpret the title of her iconic I’ll Be Your Mirror, put together a superb collection of films—Derek Jarman’s monochrome elegy, Blue; Raymond Depardon’s unflinching portrait of a Venetian psychiatric hospital, San Clemente; an oddly complementary pair of road movies in Barbara Loden’s Wanda and Lisandro Alonso’s Los Muertos—that reflected myriad ways of seeing and being seen. (Goldin’s slide show The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was accompanied by live music from Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, the subject of Marie Losier’s poignant documentary The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, which also screened here.)

In an intriguing confluence of curation, criticism, and practice, Ben Rivers and Ben Russell (himself a festival regular in recent years for the hallucinatory Trypps series and the neo-Rouchian Let Each One Go Where He May) offered an oblique sneak preview of their upcoming collaboration in the form of an elaborate annotated riff. Titled A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, their jointly directed film will depict the same character in different settings (Arctic isolation, a Scandinavian commune, the black-metal music scene), and for CPH:DOX, the filmmakers assembled multipart programs on the themes of “solitude,” “collectivity,” and “phenomenology.” As their much-anticipated film promises to do, their series revealed common ground between Rivers’s pastoral vision and Russell’s psychedelic one, emphasizing their shared interests in the terror and beauty of the natural world, alternate ways of living and being, and the possibility of transcendence.

It’s hard to think of another festival that could have so seamlessly accommodated the Ben & Ben program, a study in eclecticism and an impeccable display of fringe connoisseurship: cult horror (John Carpenter’s The Thing), cult documentary (Robert Kramer’s Milestones), avant-garde cult items (George Kuchar’s Weather Diary 3), cult oddities (Vladimir Tulkin’s Lord of the Flies, about the eccentric inventor of a gruesome fly-killing contraption). Hunter Hunt-Hendrix of the Brooklyn band Liturgy, black metal’s resident philosopher, delivered a lecture on nihilism and humanism. Midway through one program of shorts, the sisters who front Hare Krishna psychedelic band Prince Rama lit incense, waved wind chimes, and led an improbably energetic session of New Age aerobics. And in another, the print of Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising, of all films, actually caught fire, as if through some incantatory magic—a material manifestation of the bubbling lava pools on screen, an altogether fitting intrusion of the real, and of the sublime.

Dennis Lim

The ninth Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival took place November 3–13, 2011.