TRUE LIES: Copenhagen’s cheerfully unconventional nonfiction film festival plays fast and loose with its criteria
by Laura Kern
As documentary festivals stake their ground more deeply around the world, CPH:DOX, sister event to April’s fiction-based CPH:PIX, distinguishes itself by continuing to seek out films that defy the norm, or as festival director Tine Fischer puts it, “films in the margins of the undefined.” It’s a spirited, decidedly modern approach and the result (in its eighth year) is a proudly hip fusion of film, music, and the visual arts.
Because the gap between the found and the invented in cinema is forever narrowing—and audiences are increasingly wary about buying what’s being sold as “truth”—it’s legitimate, if not unavoidable, to stretch the definition of “documentary” a bit. But if a festival’s aim is to pay respect to the nonfiction form, which persists in being overshadowed by fiction film, its programmers and jurors should perhaps be obliged to honor a stricter definition. Purists, like me, were certainly perplexed when the DOX:AWARD went to Le Quattro Volte, which by all accounts—including those of its producer and director, who accepted the prize in person and via Skype respectively—is in no way a documentary. (And this award was not a one-off occurrence: last year Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers, also not a documentary—thankfully—took the prize. Moreover, one of this year’s DANISH:DOX winners, Jakob Boeskov, good-humoredly admitted during his acceptance speech that his short Empire North wasn’t a doc either.) Le Quattro Volte is an excellent film and as much as it’s deserving of all the accolades it’s been receiving (I recently served on a jury at the Reykjavik Film Festival, where we awarded it the top fiction prize), more appropriate contenders were present, most notably The Good Life. Eva Mulvad’s highly entertaining doc will inevitably be labeled as the Danish answer to Grey Gardens: its subjects are a deluded, once-wealthy mother and daughter, incapable of living within their means. Still, the jury defended their decision on the grounds that Le Quattro Volte “represents an entirely new type of film: the mythical documentary.” Really? (To be fair, they did give Andrei Ujica’s three-hour The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu an honorable mention.)
Perhaps it’s in part due to its proximity to IDFA, one of the world’s annual go-to doc events, which begins just days after CPH:DOX, but standing out from the pack is obviously one of the fest’s driving motivations. Depending on your standpoint, this “we-do-things-our-way” attitude is either refreshing or frustrating. The latter applies to the opening-night film: Jørgen Leth’s Erotic Man, a passion project more than a decade in the making—and one that perhaps should have been reserved for the privacy of the director’s bedroom. Set to sappy music and recitations of his own poetry, Leth’s deadening film shows a variety of luscious barely legal girls from around the world (Haiti, the Philippines, Senegal, and other developing nations) whom the director asks to expose their bodies on camera—and presumably do more off camera—while reminiscing about the loss of a not so thinly veiled “European lover.” Leth, a pioneering Danish filmmaker, is also a known provocateur (and his 2005 autobiography made public his predilection for teenagers), but strangely his latest didn’t rile audiences for reasons the usual reasons. Because Erotic Man might just possibly have been made in earnest, Leth’s objectification of women seems somehow less offensive than his assumption that anyone, beyond other dirty old men, might find wisdom in his would-be homage to female beauty, which also serves as an essay on lost love, aging, and regret. Growing old—he’s now 73—hasn’t humbled Leth, or diminished his sexual desire, but it appears to have dulled his sense perception.
The perfect antidote came in the form of the devastating and inspirational Pink Saris, which follows Sampat Pal Devi, an indomitable woman in a remote region of India who lets no one get in the way of her attempts to battle injustice in a male-dominated caste society, where girls are customarily married off as preteens and often suffer physical abuse. She forms a sort of vigilante group known as the Gulabi (“Pink”) Gang, but the film presents her more as a one-woman army. Seeing her in action makes for such perfectly timed drama—Sampat certainly enjoys the spotlight—that if one didn’t know better, some scenes might seem staged. Director Kim Longinotto wisely chooses not to shy away from Sampat’s flaws, making her a multilayered heroine, sometimes maddening, but always fascinating to watch. The film deservedly won the festival’s Amnesty Award.
A non-award section, TOP:DOX, served up some “mainstream” options, which have already received theatrical runs in the U.S., including Nicolas Philibert’s fascinating study of a 40-year-old orangutan, Nénette, Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, Frederick Wiseman’s Boxing Gym, Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman,” and, most questionably, the Safdie Brothers’ Daddy Longlegs, which, though loosely autobiographical, is hardly a documentary. The most welcome of the bunch was Errol Morris’s Tabloid, his return to mischievous form after more somber outings like The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure. Regardless of tone, Morris can make any subject absolutely engaging. This time the camera is turned on a fallen beauty queen, Joyce McKinney, who was so obsessed with a disappeared lover that her loony antics attracted sensationalistic British news coverage in the late Seventies. Undying love, kidnappings, sex scandals, pitbull clonings, Mormon “villains”—what more could you ask for? But most of all, Morris proves yet again that pure, unadulterated documentaries can still blow minds with well-selected real-life material—and talent of course.
Which is not to say that CPH:DOX isn’t on to something. It’ll be interesting to see whether in future years the festival can walk the line as finely as some of the films it presents.