Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous, 2015. Christopher Doyle (Hong Kong)

Not-to-be-missed highlights of the CPH:DOX 2015 0

By Lizete Riņķe

Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival
November 5-15, 2015

Can art change the world? This question seems to embody the entire DNA of the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival, CPH:DOX. On Thursday, November 5th, cinemas and other venues in Copenhagen will open their doors for the 13th edition of the Festival, which has become one of the major events in the city. Under the leadership of Tine Fischer, the director of the Festival and its founder in 2003, the Festival has experienced enormous success as it continuously grows and evolves through the years. Today, the festival has become one of the largest of its kind in the world, and its importance on an international scale has been cemented. It draws an increasing number of visitors, not to mention industry representatives, every year. To a great extent, CPH:DOX is also an industry event, under the auspices of which an array of different initiatives are instigated with the goal of bringing filmmakers and other professionals from different fields together, and in so doing, encouraging cooperation.  

Lost and Beautiful, 2015. Pietro Marcello (Italy). Nominee in the category DOX:AWARD 

Every year, CPH:DOX presents a comprehensive programme of documentaries spread across different categories and special themes. This year it includes over 200 films from around the world. 60 of the films will be holding their world premiere at CPH:DOX, which is also a good indicator of the Festival’s importance. Each year, selected films from the various categories are nominated for awards. There are four award categories – the main DOX:AWARD, the NEW:VISION Award, the FACT:AWARD, and the NORDIC:DOX Award, as well as a separate category: the Politiken Audience Award. However, CPH:DOX is not only about film screenings and awards; a whole range of different events take place during the Festival, including concerts, conferences, seminars, talks, Q&As, creative labs, exhibitions, parties and more.

Diversity is a characteristic of CPH:DOX well illustrated by the fact that the presented films deal with a wide range of subjects. Nevertheless, every year a few topics are given centre stage in the programme. This year a particular focus has been placed on activism and social change, climate change, science and technology, current refugee crises and, of course, politics; and last but not least, art. In general, art and activism play a leading role at CPH:DOX, and no matter how utopian this might seem, the idea that it is possible to initiate actual changes through art permeates the whole festival. This not only incorporates a rising awareness or criticism, but active participation as well.

In the run-up to the COP21 Climate Summit in Paris this coming December, CPH:DOX has invited author and activist Naomi Klein to be a guest curator for a film programme in which she has selected 10 films that are examples of how documentaries can make a difference. Furthermore, the film This Changes Everything – by Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis, and based on Klein’s bestseller with the same title – has been nominated for the FACT:AWARD. According to Klein, climate change is not only the biggest challenge in the world today, it is also the greatest opportunity to change the world for the better.

This Changes Everything, 2015. Naomi Klein & Awi Lewis (Canada, USA)

A second guest curator this year is the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. Eliasson is known for his installations that not only take their point of departure from nature and the world around us (as well as from our perception of the world), but that also become a part of their surroundings, or are created as an alternative reality or artificial landscapes – like the spectacular large-scale installation Riverbed, at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Eliasson has also placed 100 tonnes of ice from Greenland in the middle of Copenhagen’s City Hall Square (Ice Watch); the melting ice is intended to raise awareness of climate change. Among the films selected by Eliasson is Zhao Liang’s visionary and visually striking Behemoth (2015), which participated in this year’s Venice Film Festival. The film is set in the magnificent and beautiful, but at the same time – apocalyptic, landscape around a Chinese iron mine, and portrays the mining industry, an endeavor that has enormous costs in terms of the environment and the people working there.

Behemoth, 2015. Zhao Liang (China, France)      

Much of the success of CPH:DOX is due to the interdisciplinary approach which the Festival has pursued since its beginnings – the building of bridges that connect film, art, music and other media, and the mixing of different genres. The Festival has nurtured an unorthodox approach to the documentary film genre with a particular focus on films that, in their own various ways, oppose the fundamental rules of documentary film; it shows how diverse documentary film can be in its form and expression, and that the field is actually comprised of not just one genre, but of a multiplicity of genres. There is no doubt that this has been among the contributing factors to why documentary film has shed its dull image and attained such a huge interest among the public. It is no exaggeration to say that documentary film has become a genre which nowadays is often far more visionary and innovative then that of feature films.

In different ways, art occupies a central place at CPH:DOX, a feature that this year’s opening film seems to emphasise. Man Falling (2015), by the Danish director Anne Wivel, commenced the festival on Tuesday night, November 3rd, at the opening gala at the DR Concert Hall. The film has been nominated for the DOX:AWARD and follows the struggle of the renowned Danish painter, Per Kirkeby, to regain his ability to work after an accident that resulted in a brain injury that not only caused a loss of mobility, but also destroyed his ability to recognise colours.

Man Falling, 2015. Anne Wivel

Many of the films at CPH:DOX can be positioned somewhere in between art film and documentary, while others belong firmly in the category of art films and are created by visual artists working with film. Consequently, CPH:DOX fundamentally challenges our idea of the documentary film, as well as its relationship to reality. We can find a number of these films in the NEW:VISION competition. In turn, and as ever, short films are not to be overlooked at CPH:DOX. There are several short films in the programme, some of which are participants in the NEW:VISION competition. Among them is Taiwan-based Tsai Ming-Liang’s latest film addition to the Walker series begun in 2012, No No Sleep (2015), about a Buddhist monk’s solitary wanderings in extreme slow motion through metropolitan landscapes. The film is played out in a futuristic capsule hotel and a Japanese bathhouse in Tokyo, where the monk is in the silent company of an anonymous, young Japanese man. Time, as an entity in itself, has the leading role in Tsai Ming-Liang’s film.

No No Sleep, 2015. Tsai Ming-Liang

Another short in the programme, Ah Humanity! (2015), by Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel and Ernst Karel of the Harvard-based Sensory Ethnography Lab, brings us to Japan. Ah Humanity! (the title having been drawn from Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby the Scrivener) is an advanced audiovisual project located somewhere in between art and scientific research based on the Fukushima nuclear disaster. It is an apocalyptic vision of modernity filmed by a mobile phone through a telescope; in a paradoxical way, the film not only brings us closer to the world, but also distances us from it.

Ah Humanity!, 2015. Ernst Karel, Véréna Paravel & Lucien Castaing-Taylor

Another short definitely worth mentioning is Pierre Huyghe’s Untitled (Human Mask) (2014). Huyghe’s work is always extremely captivating, and this film is no exception. It also starts off in the desolate and wrecked landscape around Fukushima, until the scenery switches to a deserted restaurant. Here we are met by a lonely figure which, at first sight, looks like a girl with long dark hair in a waitress uniform, her face hidden behind an expressionless white mask; “she” turns out to be a monkey. The film speaks on the collapse of both biological and cultural distinctions, authenticity and artificiality, and that which is natural and that which is man-made. Another film by Pierre Huyghe, A Journey That Wasn’t There (2005), is part of the film programme curated by Olafur Eliasson.

Untitled (Human Mask), 2014. Pierre Huyghe

A Journey That Wasn’t There, 2005. Pierre Huyghe

A previous award winner at CPH:DOX – the British artist and filmmaker Ben Rivers (who won the NEW:VISION Award in 2013 together with Ben Russel for their film, A Spell to the Ward Off the Darkness) – is back at this year’s Festival with his anthropological field trip, The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers (2015). The film was shot in the landscape around the Atlas Mountains and in the Moroccan desert, and begins as a “meta film” documenting the shoot of a mysterious film project... until the director leaves his own film and wanders restlessly in the desert. Ben Rivers’ films are absolutely not to be missed.

The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers, 2015. Ben Rivers


This year, CPH:DOX is also behind a series of exhibitions created in cooperation with the exhibition venues Nikolaj Kunsthal, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Fotografisk Center, and Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art.

Richard Billingham: Ray, 2015. Video still. Copyright: the artist. Courtesy: Anthony Reynolds Gallery

Nikolaj Kunsthal
November 5 – 29, 2015

At Nikolaj Kunsthal, the exhibition Embodied presents recent works by influential international artists, including Richard Billingham, Chim­Pom, Tacita Dean, Martha Rosler, and Coco Fusco. The exhibition is curated by the London-based curator and producer Jacqui Davies, who was also the producer of Ben River’s The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers. Embodiedpresents film and video works that explore encounters between documentary and performance. It considers performance a process of re-enactment, re-presentation, mediation and staging reality, as well as ideas such as: the individual subject as a discursive (documentary) practice, counter-performances, exhibitionism, and unconscious performance. These various ideas are linked together in order to question the tension between fiction and reality within documentary film.

Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian: Those Who Love Spiders, and Let Them Sleep in Their Hair

Den Frie
November 7, 2015 - March 6, 2016

Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art presents the up-and-coming Iranian, Dubai-based art collective Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian. The exhibition, Those Who Love Spiders, and Let Them Sleep in Their Hair, is a total installation and a kind of “cabinet of curiosities” that consists of works done in different media, including a number of the trio’s films (in which they often appear themselves). The films and performances are created in collaboration with friends, designers, DJs, sound artists and other fellow artists. They find their inspiration in Persian poetry, British music, American art, and in Japanese, Russian, French and Iranian cinema. Using materials such as dolls, furniture, animal skulls, colourful carpets and ceramics in their work, they deal with topics that are often controversial in their native Iran.

Jacob Holdt: American Pictures

Kunsthal Charlottenborg
November 6, 2015 - January 3, 2016

At Kunsthal Charlottenborg one can see the Danish photographer Jacob Holdt’s world-famous series of photographs, American Pictures, which he took during his road trip through the USA in the 1970s; in the photos he captured the people he met en route, thereby documenting the poverty and the living conditions experienced by the underclasses of American society. Jacob Holdt’s photographs have been the subject of some considerable controversy because critics argue that they do not tell the truth – that they were, in fact, staged, and that the persons portrayed are not authentic. Holdt’s work raises questions about the essence of truth in documentary photography and the reality of photographic images in general – subjects highly relevant in the context of CPH:DOX.

Even though art is not always able to change the world, it can change the way we look at the world, which is particularly applicable in the case of CPH:DOX.