CPH:DOX 2018: Stranger Than Nonfiction

This year’s edition of the acclaimed documentary film festival showcased an impressive combination of social realism and artistic manipulation

In 1972, Buckminster Fuller, the de facto patron saint of so many mid-century communal-living projects here on spaceship earth, wrote the poem-cum-manifesto Intuitions, in which he describes a metaphorical post-production studio populated by news reporters, an array of lenses, and a cathode-ray tube set:

All we have ever seen
Is and always will be
In the scopes of our brain’s TV station
All that humanity has ever seen
And will ever see
In his own imagination;
Some of it is faithfully reported new,
Some of it is invented fiction or make-believe
Some of it is doggedly retained “want to believe.”

These tools – the faithfully reported new, the invented fictions, and the want to believe – are as crucial in documentary filmmaking as in social experimentation. Such was the focus of the 15th edition of CPH:DOX, a standout annual documentary film festival based mainly in Copenhagen’s art space Kunsthal Charlottenborg and dedicated to foregrounding experimental and nonfiction artist films. CPH:DOX’s ‘Social Experiments’ thematic programme infused this year’s main slate of programming as well as any specifically curated sidebar. The festival’s self-aware strand was a welcome respite from a prevalent strain in contemporary documentary film heavily focused on the superlative individual, at the cost of grappling with powerful structural and societal forces, and some smart films allowed for a speculative social reimagining.

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Marcus Lindeen, The Raft, 2018, film still. Courtesy: CPH:DOX

Marcus Lindeen, The Raft, 2018, film still. Courtesy: CPH:DOX

Making its world premiere at CPH:DOX (and taking home the main competition prize) was Swedish filmmaker Marcus Lindeen’s The Raft (2018), which tackles a scientific experiment by the Mexican anthropologist Dr. Santiago Genovés. In 1973, Dr. Genovés recruited 11 men and women from around the world, assigned them roles on a squat steel vessel with a single square sail – looking unnervingly like a child’s scribbled interpretation of a boat – and set off with them on a 101-day voyage across the Atlantic. Half a century later, Lindeen brought the still-living participants (6 out of 7 of whom are women) onto a Swedish soundstage outfitted with a replica raft, made of plywood and based on the boat’s original blueprints by Lars von Trier mainstay designer Simone Grau Roney, and had them talk (and walk) through their memories. Through interviews and conversations conducted on the reconstructed raft, supplemented by incredible 16mm footage from the original voyage, a profile of a highly-functional and harmonious matriarchy emerges. The stated goal of the scientific project was to study what combination of forces might result in societal strife. Dr. Genovés deliberately appointed women to top positions, expecting that the flipping gender roles would be the surest guarantee of violent chaos. Instead, finding himself faced with a remarkably smoothly functioning group, he begins fomenting strife himself, lest his hermetic experiment in discord be a ‘failure’. The film is exquisitely constructed, though it was difficult to ignore the symmetry between the role of the documentary director who has orchestrated and directed this entire reunion, and his ambitious-yet-tyrannical scientist counterpart. Documentary subjects are, after all, oftentimes closer to lab rats than we’d like to admit, and The Raft’s failure to reckon with this kept the film slightly closer to historical curiosity than a full-throated exploration into the nature of social experimentation and manipulation, even – or especially – when it’s towards noble ends.

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Raed Andoni, Ghost Hunting, 2017, film still. Courtesy: CPH: DOX

Raed Andoni, Ghost Hunting, 2017, film still. Courtesy: CPH: DOX

In another film, Ghost Hunting (2017), in the ‘A Method to the Madness’ political film section, Palestinian director Raed Andoni directly explores the parallels between depicted and actual manipulation. Midway through the film, which originally premiered at the 2017 Berlin Berlinale, the director – who also gets an acting credit for playing the role of ‘director’ – is confronted by one of his films’ subjects: ‘You want us all to be pawns in your game of chess ... You're making this film because you're trying to have a new experience in our skin.’ Using Ramallah-based actors and crew members who had once been imprisoned in Israeli detention centres, Andoni instructs the group to build the notorious Al-Moskobiya interrogation centre from memory, and then reenact brutal interrogation sessions in its bespoke cells. Not allowing its director to escape unscathed, Ghost Hunting is far more than just an exercise in group therapy, throwing itself headlong into the myriad and often unpredictable ways we can all hurt each other through both power and trauma.

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Jana Magdalena Keuchel and Katharina Knust, Last Year in Utopia, 2018, film still. Courtesy: CPH:DOX

Jana Magdalena Keuchel and Katharina Knust, Last Year in Utopia, 2018, film still. Courtesy: CPH:DOX

In another notable CPH:DOX premiere, reenactment is employed as a method of gesturing towards understanding. In Jana Magdalena Keuchel and Katharina Knust’s Brechtian Last Year in Utopia (2018), a group of white sweatsuit-clad actors on a minimalist white set in the German forest take cues from reality TV performers who’d participated in an aborted wondervogel-esque television programme. Highly-stylized and emotionally cool, Last Year in Utopia effectively sanitizes out the mess of human relations, clearing a surface from which to examine the expectations, disappointments, and manipulations by predictable outside forces (including that devil for the ages, capital) that arrest and disrupt our attempts at utopia. And similarly, in Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17 (2018), which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, the filmmaking team enlists the residents of a ghost town in Arizona, the site of a historically-forgotten 1917 labour conflagration that resulted in the forced deportation of 1,200 miners, mostly immigrants. Staging a town-wide reenactment that consistently draws attention to its own artifice, the film takes a collaborative approach to revealing the twinned power of collective action and collective memory.

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Jean Rouch, The Human Pyramid, 1959, film still. Courtesy: CPH:DOX

Jean Rouch, The Human Pyramid, 1959, film still. Courtesy: CPH:DOX

And as always, there was Jean Rouch to remind us that he’d done it all already 50 years before. In his groundbreaking film The Human Pyramid (1959), a hybrid documentary-fiction melodrama set in the Ivory Coast, a group of African and white French colonial high school students, who share an integrated classroom but live very strictly segregated social lives, venture to intermingle outside of school. Late in the film it becomes clear that these daring new interactions are actually fostered by Rouch’s direct intervention into their personal lives, and as such, The Human Pyramid’s often stilted-feeling scenes are transformed into powerful mirror image reflections of the stark awkwardness of nascent, socially-radical intimacies. As Rouch said about Luis Buñuel and his aspirations for The Human Pyramid, ‘the dream is just as real, maybe more so, than reality.’ Thankfully, these CPH:DOX films take up Rouch’s baton, powerfully reflecting ways to live that are contained in our ‘brain’s TV station’.

CPH:DOX, Copenhagen, ran from 15–25 March.

Main image: Marcus Lindeen, The Raft, 2018, film still. Courtesy: CPH:DOX

Sierra Pettengill is a New York-based filmmaker. She is currently a Sundance Institute Art of Nonfiction Fellow.

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