SINCE ITS INCEPTION IN 2003, the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX) has championed a hybrid model of documentary film—work situated between fiction and nonfiction, between visual art and cinema; there’s even room for full-fledged fiction films. The festival deserves its reputation for adventurous programming; this is, after all, the only documentary festival to screen Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers in competition and award it the top prize, as it did in 2009. It’s also become a festival of unwieldy ambition that continues to maintain a charming intimacy, even as it has matured into a wide-ranging, multifront operation that includes concerts (Fuck Buttons, Jamie Ferraro); ambitious art installations, such as Michelangelo Frammartino’s immersive and sublime Alberi; and film and music experiments, such as “Disorder Live,” a performance accompanying Huang Weikai’s masterful 2009 film. What’s more, dissatisfied with merely being a platform for new work, the festival has in recent years established an industry forum and multiple funding initiatives for collaborative films and new media projects, one which includes a partnership with Frieze.
Billing itself under the theme “Everything Is Under Control,” the 2013 edition was unabashedly political. Ai Weiwei and the Yes Men acted as guest curators, selecting predictably unpredictable work—Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966); Antonioni’s 1972 Chun Kuo, Chin (the first documentary about communist China produced by a Westerner); and Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare (1977). A showcase of new Chinese documentaries included new work by Li Hongqi, Wang Bing, and Bo Wang, and an award for films operating between investigative journalism and activism was established. Festival director Tine Fischer suggested that this shift in focus was partially inspired by journalists like Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras and their commitment to rewriting the rules of engagement in a digital landscape, especially in terms of methodology and distribution of content.
Ai was without a doubt the festival’s moral center, albeit in absentia. (He remains without a passport and cannot leave China.) In addition to curating, the artist was represented at the festival by two films—the opening-night selection, Andreas Johnsen’s Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case (2013) and Stay Home! (2013), Ai’s latest documentary, which played in competition. Johnsen’s remarkably intimate film, which observes a visibly traumatized Ai under house arrest following his eighty-one-day detention in 2011, captures the pressures and fears of the artist as public activist. “Nothing is under control,” Ai urged in a videotaped address prior to the premiere of Stay Home!. That film follows Liu Ximei, an HIV-positive woman who contracted the disease as a child during a hospital visit. She now advocates for those denied access to medical care. Shot on a consumer-grade camera, the film has an impoverished aesthetic that matches its bleak portrait of a system that refuses to take responsibility for its people.
Ai’s film is typical of the recent wave of Chinese documentaries that focus on the Kafkaesque insanity of that country’s bureaucracy, and approach film not as a precious art but as a critical means to survey the state. Zhu Rikun’s The Questioning (2013), a single-take film documenting the director’s confrontation with police in his hotel room, essentially serves as evidence of human rights violations. Its underlying absurdity was perhaps exceeded only by Li Hongqi’s Hooly Bible (2013). Set in a dismal debt-collection office and an equally oppressive nightclub, and featuring a comically endless search for a parking space, the film presents an existential nightmare set in China’s lowest depths. An immersion in aimlessness so complete as to feel utterly interminable, the film is all the more discomfiting for the absence of any context. Poet and fiction filmmaker Hongqi (Winter Vacation, 2011) lets us speculate on circumstances surrounding his subjects—the thuggish collectors trading violent anecdotes and the bored twentysomething prostitutes awaiting clients—and to what degree the film is in fact fiction.
A more intimate version of hell is presented in Atlas (2013), the second feature by Antoine D’Agata. The controversial Magnum photographer and provocateur has spent the past twenty years documenting his participation in sordid scenarios of sex and addiction. Altas was shot in more than twenty cities around the world, but essentially takes place in the same abysmal room, where D’Agata chain-smokes meth, shoots up, and has sex with prostitutes. Profoundly unsettling politics underlying D’Agata’s longtime relationship with these women aside, the film is essentially a confession of the deepest and darkest kind. Its unremitting mood and static images produce a dramatic stasis that may serve the project conceptually but which undermines any emotional connection. It’s essentially a slide show, and is perhaps best experienced as one.
D’Agata would likely subscribe to Artaud’s “It’s better to be than to obey,” a sentiment invoked by French-Algerian director Narimane Mari at the end of Bloody Beans, which took the festival’s top prize. Mari’s film is concerned with transgressing historical reality through an imaginative reenactment of Algeria’s independence performed by a group of children. Culminating in a hypnotic nocturnal graveyard shadow play—at once playful and menacing—the film marries postcolonial critique with the anarchic spirit of Jean Vigo. Reenactment and collective history are also integral to The Filmballad of Mamadada, a feminist biopic of little-known lesbian dadaist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven that includes contributions by more than fifty filmmakers and uses an exquisite corpse structure. Inspired in part by Ulrike Müller’s Herstory Inventory (Müller also narrates the film), first-time filmmakers Lily Benson and Cassandra Guan orchestrate a playful and chaotic experiment that posits a return to a grand collective narrative via the postqueer populism of YouTube and crowdsourcing.
Jørgen Leth’s collective portrait Life in Denmark (1972) closed the festival. (The Danish auteur of experimental documentary was being honored for his fiftieth year in filmmaking.) Recalling Warhol in its deadpan tone and advertising-savvy aesthetics, Leth’s ironic take on the ethnographic film was perhaps the perfect conclusion to a festival that has a predilection for looking backward to move the genre of documentary forward.
The eleventh Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX) ran November 7–17.