Across the world, documentaries are gaining ground on fiction films and TV shows. Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival, CPH:DOX, now in its 10th year, has helped put Danish docs up among the world’s best.
By Anne-Marie Mosbech, Focus Denmark no 3. 2012
Danish documentaries are scooping up the awards.
Using a poetic and personal language, a new generation of Danish documentary makers have found a way to speak to the hearts and minds of jury members, purchasers and public alike, the world over.
Ally Derks, director of the world’s largest film festival devoted purely to documentaries, IDFA in Amsterdam, says: “I think Danish docs are among the best in the world. Great story telling!”
But it hasn’t always been like this.
Ten years ago, documentary films in Denmark lived in the shadow of TV series and films. All eyes were on the so-called dogma films, started in 1995 by Lars von Trier and three other Danish directors, which aimed to create a more natural and realistic atmosphere. Dogma films gained international recognition and put Danish film in the limelight. But attention has now swung onto Danish documentary films, which have gained audiences both in cinemas and on prime time television.
According to Kim Skotte, film critic of one of Denmark’s leading daily newspapers, Politiken, the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival CPH:DOX has played a key role in bringing about this change: “CPH:DOX has proved an important factor, because it has quickly established a reputation as being a different kind of documentary film festival,” he says, adding that the films shown at the festival set themselves apart by incorporating style elements from art and musical films, or by blending fact with fiction.
Tine Fischer, director of CPH:DOX, thinks that the National Film School of Denmark, which is regarded internationally as one of the best, and the Danish Film Institute, which supports the development, production and distribution of Danish film, together with the festival, have jointly had a considerable effect: “The combination of the three has created what I think is the world’s strongest documentary film scene, and it would be absurd not to call it a golden age at the present time,” she says.
CPH:DOX has established a reputation as being a
different kind of documentary film festival.
Pushing storytelling to the limit
Many Danish documentary makers are trained at the National Film School’s TV faculty, where they work closely with students making fiction films. One such documentary film director is Phie Ambo. “Denmark is unique in that we do not distinguish between film ‘languages’ and there are no rules governing which of them should be used in documentary films and fiction films,” says Ambo whose 94 minute film Family from 2001, about a young man’s attempts to find his absentee father, started the Danish wave of long, creative documentary films produced for the cinema.
Close collaboration in a small industry has helped develop the film language in Phie Ambo’s latest documentary, Free The Mind. Using the theories of Richard Davidson, a leading international figure in brain research, the Danish director follows two traumatised war veterans and a 5-year old boy with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in their battles to turn a miserable existence into a normal life.
Another Danish documentary, Armadillo, is a long psychological drama about two Danish soldiers who go to war for the first time. Director Janus Metz says of the film: “It contains some strong, unique scenes which I have not seen before in a documentary film. It is bold enough to use techniques from fiction film to tell its story, and so Armadillo is much closer to films like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter than to a TV news piece on the war in Afghanistan.”
Exploring the boundaries between documentary and fiction doesn’t always garner praise, however. Modern documentary film makers have been criticised for manipulating truth rather than documenting it. This happened in the case of controversial TV journalist Mads Brügger, who in his latest film The Ambassador travels to the Central African Republic on a false diplomatic passport and masquerades as a diplomat in order to conceal his role as an investigative reporter.
Using the techniques of fiction films in documentaries and producing them for the big screen is not an isolated Danish phenomenon. It is an international trend, which can be traced back to the American documentary film maker Michael Moore, who with Bowling for Columbine won the prize for the best foreign film at Cannes in 2002. But: “In Denmark we have been quick to see and explore the opportunities that lie in the borderland between direction and documentarism,” says film critic Kim Skotte.
Tine Fischer at CPH:DOX also thinks that three seasoned Danish documentary film makers – Jørgen Leth, Jon Bang Carlsen and Anne Wivel – have played a role by creating a platform for today’s documentary film makers.
“The whole new generation of documentary film makers stands on their shoulders. They have the combination of art and film, the blend of direction and documentarism, and something very personal and poetic. It all rests on basic traditions.”
Danish documentary films stem from Nordic humanism, thinks Lise Lense-Møller of Magic Hour Films, who has been a producer for 30 years: “It is a general attitude of being interested in other people and the world at large, and to ask questions without serving up simple conclusions.”
As a producer, Lense-Møller herself has a number of award-winning documentaries to her credit, including Michael Madsen’s Into Eternity, about the Onkalo complex in Finland where radioactive waste will be stored for 100,000 years, and Anders Østergaard’s Burma VJ – Reporting from a Closed Country, which gives an insight into the country’s shadowy regime.
Danish documentary films have gained audiences in cinemas and on prime time television.
Danish directors have considerable artistic ambition, and long and creative documentaries are expensive to produce. But the Danish industry benefits from a unique public pool of money, administered by The Danish Film Institute, for the development and production of documentary films.
“This has an enormous impact on the quality. It keeps the good work going,” says Ally Derks of the IDFA festival in Amsterdam, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
Sigrid Dyekjær, producer and coowner of production company Danish Documentary, agrees:
“I think one of the reasons why we are among the most accomplished is because we have the money. The films are well produced, the camera work is excellent, and we go a long way to achieve very high quality,” says Dyekjær, whose company has produced award-winning and commercially successful documentaries such as Free The Mind, Ballroom Dancer and The Good Life.
Long, creative documentary films are selling well abroad. So confirm figures from the Danish public service channel, Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR), which often co-produces the films, while also handling distribution and sales for many of them.
“We are seeing increasing demand for Danish documentary films. The numbers sold have steadily increased over the years,” says Helene Aurø, head of DR International Sales.
Interest in Danish documentaries is seen worldwide. In terms of sales, Europe is leading the way, but Australia, USA and Latin America are also doing well. More than half of all films sold via DR are documentaries, including the genre-experiment Armadillo by Janus Metz, which has been sold to 28 countries, and the more conventional journalistic documentary film The bitter taste of tea by Tom Heinemann, which has been sold to 13 countries.
The genre-experiment ‘Armadillo’ by Janus Metz has been sold to 28 countries.
Much of the international interest in Danish documentary film is stimulated by the film festival CPH:DOX, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. From being a small festival in the Danish capital of Copenhagen, CPH:DOX has grown to become one of the world’s leading festivals for documentaries. In 2003, it attracted 11,706 visitors; by 2011 the figure had grown to 47,300. In the same period, the number of attendees from the international film industry and the press increased from 25 to 200.
The organisers of CPH:DOX have ambitions to make the festival even more trend-setting and so have initiated DOX:LAB, where they are developing existing talent and scouting for promising newcomers worldwide.
“A major festival should not just reproduce what others do, but help in attracting and developing new talent,” says Tine Fischer. •