Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival: an imperative for Copenhagen’s curious souls.
With its thumping heart situated in ‘Kunsthal Charlottenborg’ – one of Europe’s largest and most beautiful exhibition spaces for contemporary art – CPH:DOX is a dream come true for the documentary-lovers, aesthetes, and cinephiles of the Danish capital.
Kunsthal Charlottenborg: the exhibition space sitting opposite the iconic moss-and-rust-coloured fisherman’s buildings of Nyhavn harbour.
Founded in 2003, CPH:DOX is among the world’s largest documentary film festivals. This year’s programme has been choreographed to include both film and video works, encompassing both cinema and visual art. The programme also tunes into multifarious themes including science, music, art, ideas, politics and even ethnography. The list of films draws together topics ranging from Swedish summertime (Ridge) to shamanism in Colombia (Altiplano + Lapü) to the link between honey bees and NASA (Swarm Season). In addition to this, artist talks, debates and masterclasses held alongside the film showings bring together a cacophony of different voices from the realms of cinema, television and media art.
Considering such diversity, it was incredibly difficult for me to decide which films to go and see! But here are three of my favourites – each with a distinctly Scandinavian edge.
The 26th of March: Ridge
John Skroog’s gloriously unclassifiable film ‘Ridge’ chronicles one Swedish summer in one Swedish village. The showing that I went to was at the ‘Gloria’- a cosy indie movie house in the city centre. I sit down surrounded by people cradling beers and the sound of Swedish whispers. The film fills the viewing room with the sights and sounds of a hazy, moist and verdant Swedish summer.
Straying from normal documentary conventions, the film inhabits a space between visual art, abstract fiction and direct cinema. We observe as Polish agricultural workers arrive to Sweden to work on a small farm. Here, the community celebrate the long evenings; teenagers get drunk in the forest; a young girl collects slugs. Rather than a clear narrative, we hear fragmented stories of the tales of the village which have taken on an almost mythological quality … Once, two cows escaped from the farm and weren’t found until the end of the summer. Once, a helicopter arrived at the village and some of the villagers got to go up and see their whole village from above. Once, there was a man who owned 100 rabbits.
The filming and colour palette also cannot go without comment. The scenes are framed like photographs, perfectly symmetrical structures within which the scenes organically unfold. Filmed largely at twilight, the film had a distinctive and rich colour palette bringing everything to life.
In a Q&A session after the showing, we hear Skoog explain his vision behind the film. We learn that the film was in fact filmed in the village in which he grew up and the characters in fact largely played themselves, including Skoog’s own brother. He also explains that he wanted to create a piece where the main character isn’t a character or person but is in fact a relationship. This relationship is the collaboration between the summertime, the landscape, the community and the machinery of the farm. Holding back from creating a narrative for the film, he lets the landscape, summer, and machinery speak for themselves.
The 28th of March: The Other Munch
It’s a Thursday evening and I’ve cycled to Kunsthall Charlottenberg, past the lit-up facades of the Nyhavn harbourside buildings. It’s the bustling hub of the festival, with bikes stacked up against one another and against every wall. I have come to watch a documentary about two of Norway’s most famous artists: one from the realm of visual art, and the other from the world of literature.
‘The Other Munch’ can be described as a double-portrait of Edvarch Munch and Karl Ove Knausgaard. In the documentary, we follow the iconic Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard as he curates an exhibition of the expressionist painter Edvard Munch. In the process, it opens up a new way of seeing Munch and his work.
In his opening speech for the exhibition, Knausgaard explains how Munch is known for his tormented paintings like ‘The Scream’. And yet, these works comprise only a tiny percentage of Munch’s total work. Further, they were all painted during one acutely painful period of his life.
In fact, the vast majority of his work deals just as much with life and joy as it does with death and pain. For example, Knausgaard is particularly enamoured by his work: ‘Cabbage Field’. In this way, Knausgaard’s curation shows us another side of Munch. The Other Munch.
As the film goes on, another facet to the title of the film is uncovered. As Knausgaard follows in Munch’s footsteps, we start to understand why he is drawn to ‘The Other Munch’. More and more parallels between the work of Munch and of Knausgaard come into focus.
Like Munch, Knausgaard’s early work is dark and heavy. However, as he has aged, he has moved towards the mundane, the fun and the beautiful. While his four-part epic ‘My Struggle’ deals with the death of his father, his latest four-part series (named ‘Autumn’, ‘Winter’, ‘Spring’, ‘Summer’) celebrate everyday objects like juicy fruit chewing gum and a toothbrush. Now, we start to understand why Knausgaard resonates more profoundly with ‘Cabbage field’ than ‘The Scream’.
Further, we learn that Knausgaard seeks consolation in Much’s later work, believing that he too can produce great work later in life. Not only does the film show us the other side of munch, it paints Knausgaard as ‘The Other Munch’.
The 30th of March: A Word for Human
This documentary is about one of Copenhagen’s most iconic buildings: the ‘Black Diamond’ library and its function as a hub for the different humanities and arts.
Setting out to make a documentary about literature and the humanities, Mauricio González-Aranda’s documentary follows four narrative threads as it looks behind the scenes of The Danish Royal Library. Inspired by the observational style of Frederik Weissman, we follow the library’s senior researcher Anders Toftgaard as he explores their collection of work by Michel de Montaigne and the performance artist Marina Abramović, working to make the ‘Abramović Method for Treasures’ exhibition. As the documentary draws together these different narrative strands it intertwines the different humanities and arts.
The documentary also shows us the time-machine function of libraries. As we see preparations for an exhibition about slavery and a multi-disciplinary debate about climate change unfold, we are reminded of the role of institutions such as these to remind us of our past but also to help us move into the future.
By showing us the inner workings of one of the world’s most dynamic libraries, the documentary demonstrates how the libraries of today are places where “the love for literature and culture is no longer bound to a book’s spine”.
A Festival for the World
We have taken a cinematic journey through Sweden and Norway before landing back in Denmark. Just as all the documentaries had different contents (from Swedish summer, to Norwegian artists, to Danish libraries), they were also varied in form and structure. And yet, they all fit into the same diverse category of the documentary.
By showing audiences new realities such as these and helping them to understand them, the CPH:DOX festival seeks to enlarge our life worlds. In this way, CPH:DOX is a festival not only about the world but also for the world.