Only on Earth
on April 12, 2023
A document is always an outsider's point of view.– John Berger
It had been five years since I attended CPH:Forum, with a pandemic in between. I have a hard time recognizing once-familiar things in general, but I know CPH:DOX well, having watched continuously for over 12 years, and I know that it used to be something unique on the pedestrian landscape. And while the vestiges are still there, it felt this edition (March 15 – 26 in Copenhagen, Denmark) like the entire enterprise was at a tipping point in terms of growth. Don't get me wrong: What the team there accomplishes with ever-shrinking budgets and resources is miraculous, as is every project I've seen presented on the forum in some way. It could be some nostalgic longing on my part, perhaps: I miss the cozier, more intimate ways in which this particular event was organized. The organization, as a whole, is vying to become one of the biggest and most important documentary festivals, like IDFA, and perhaps get a bigger slice of the funding pie. This kind of exponential growth requires some sort of compromise and will continue to change the profile of the kinds of projects it seeks to support.
Should filmmakers, both seasoned and up-and-coming, go out of their way to enter a forum of such scale and influence? Despite the soul-destroying nature of taking meeting after meeting, a forum like CPH is a worthwhile spectacle to attend, like a coming-of-age ball where you're wheeled in front of influential people to make a row, introduce yourself public and, if nothing else, garner some moral support from the community. But most of the filmmakers I spoke to seemed a little disappointed in their meetings with potential financiers and co-production partners this year, and I'm still a little confused by the matchmaking process. A sales and acquisitions executive told me that potential experts send the list of projects as early as February, when the Berlinale starts, and before they can be sure of much about the projects, they choose who they would like to meet with. The CPH:FORUM team, led by Head of Industry and Education Tereza Simikova, who is stepping down from this role after five years, selects the funders and professionals who will be on stage to weigh in on the presentations and have a few words about what they do and what they look for in a project. There were several instances where the person who took the stage was already supporting the project, I guess as a bid to get other observers on board. But directors receive no on-field training — which is an important component in helping teams make better pitches in their seven minutes on stage — and meeting cancellations were quite common.
CPH:DOX has been one of the few international festivals that always includes a substantial representation of Canadian and American filmmakers, executives and exhibitions. Increasingly, European events like this are beckoning to North America. for example, the 27-year-old Ji.hlava International Documentary Festival in the Czech Republic opened its Forum a few years ago to North American-based filmmakers, a recognition that what will sustain us all in this particular environment must be some kind of inclusion which was never available again.
What follows is a handpicked selection of screenings that excited, moved, and made me look forward to the day I could watch the finished films. Some of these include some projects that were presented at CPH:WIP with a sparse attendance the day before the main three-day event at the same venue.After six editions of a Nordic-only works-in-progress spotlight, the 2023 edition at CPH featured eight works, both Nordic and international, offering a kinder, gentler and more expansive way to talk about worksin medias res. With fewer bells and whistles, the presentations at this past event were moderated exclusively by a very smart and sensitive host in Gitte Hansen, a Danish consultant and mentor and former executive producer of more than 20 international documentaries and firsthand film series. Here, the director-producer teams had twice as much time - 15 minutes to explain what they were making and show several examples of visuals instead of a teaser. No experts come on stage to weigh in, so there's a much lighter, less jarring choreography throughout. (I still don't see the value of the three gangs at the biggest event offering feedback and banter from the stage and asking sometimes incredibly dense questions that they could ask later in private meetings. It takes away from the space and time the film production teams should they have to share their work. I strongly dislike this format, and judging by the majority of filmmakers I've spoken to, so do they. It makes an already daunting endeavor that much more difficult.)
Over the course of four days, I attended 40 presentations. I'd like to give a shout out to South African director Milisuthando (Mili) Bongela, who helped break down the journey for us each day in a serious and generous way. In teams of two, she co-hosted the Forum with road-tested, crowd-approved long-time conversationalists Jess Search and Tabitha Jackson, great mentors to work with in any situation. Whether it's an effort to pass the mantle soon to a younger generation of moderators (please!), having a working director to help direct traffic, keep time and manage the event from the stage added a much-needed perspective and freshness in the process.
Between the two events there were stories of historical reckoning, political conflict, uses and abuses of technology, the quest for justice and equality, animal rights, youth facing war (with an obvious focus on works coming from Ukraine at the moment), displacement due to environmental disaster /climate change and dire threats to individuals in certain cultures due to their hyperidentity, along with some very sensitive and deeply personal literary/artistic portraits – an armory of what (one hopes) concerns modern man.
There were projects in development about the shaky mental health of the world's youth, narratives centered on the beleaguered generation of teenagers and young adults facing what feels like the end of an era socially, environmentally and otherwise. The WIP projects that talked about it included Adil Khan's directlyAdil(Norway),an animated film that also uses live action and visual effects to tell the larger story behind the subject's personal story, delivered in a lecture he has already shared with half a million young people about his struggle with mental illness. Other works focusing on the modern teenage experience included Camilla Magid'sFighting demons with dragons(Denmark), filmed in a Danish boarding school that uses role-playing games and avatars to help students deal with various social and emotional challenges. From the main Forum presentations by Hannah Reinikainen and Lia HietalaOur love(Sweden, Finland, Germany) and Virpi Suutari'sOnce upon a time in a forest(Finland) dive into the worlds of teenagers.
On the other hand were projects that focused on the elderly (or, in the case of one, someone who has already passed).The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks, a beautiful mixed media feature presented as a WIP, directed by Dempsey Rice, who spent a lot of time with Sacks while he was alive, and produced by Lori Cheatle, USA, UK. They have raised almost half of their budget through the BFI/Doc Society, Kickstarter, The New York State Council on the Arts and The Lucius & Eva Eastman Fund, among others.
The title of this piece comes from Malian director Ousmane Samassekou's work in progress,Dreamscape(a small amount of its total budget has been made by Paris-based Grande Ourse Films). Samaseku returns to a central character from hisThe last refuge, whose story is one of three about people caught between their dreams and aspirations for life and the brutal reality of abandonment, climate change, statelessness, and the lack of opportunity to move forward and realize their desired goals— people who are already trapped within the strict boundaries of their circumstances. Like many of the works,dreamscape,in its own way, it presents itself as a disruption—not just of individual lives and narratives, but a disruption in systems that documentary filmmakers dream of exposing in ways that will incite change.
Written and directed by London-based filmmaker Suki Chan and produced by Aimara Reques (UK),Consciousis funded in part through a joint initiative between US-based Sandbox Films and the Sundance Institute. AndThe ground beneath our feet,directed by Yrsa Roca Fannberg (a nursing home nurse in Rekjavík, Iceland where she has been photographing and filming her subjects on 16mm for years), it is produced by Hanna Björk Valsdottir in an Icelandic-Polish co-production. Rice, Chan, and Fanberg have amassed (or, in Rice's case, bequeathed a personal Sacks archive) wonderful and profound access to their protagonists who confront dementia, a failing body, and death in ways never before seen in screen.
Each of these filmmakers has spent years with their subjects developing a visual and aural language glorious in its commitment to seek the unspoken in a rapidly deteriorating existence closer to death than life with the mind gradually drifting into the realms of hallucination. Rather than a strictly scientific look at what goes on in the human brain and psyche, the sense of one's identity in the midst of disconnection from the world must be the loneliest journey of all. As Fannberg reports: “Show me the beauty and the sadness of the old people in Grund! From the Earth we come and to it we will return." Glorious, innovative, versatile portrait.
Turning to the ideas of non-human sentience, the dynamic team that made Oscar nominationsWithdrawal,Director Jessica Kingdon and producer Nathan Truesdell presented theirsUntitled Animal Project, a global supply chain journey through a human and non-human lens. As we sayWithdrawal,the film means to connect disparate sites and systems of capitalism and global food production into a whirling machine of its own. This project has also been funded, in part, also by the Sandbox Films-Sundance Grant, as well as by Impact Partners and Field of Vision.
Other aspects of artistic portraiture appeared in the genre of work CPH:DOX was one of the first festivals to really star. Here, I'll highlight five of them that come from five of my very favorite non-fiction creators of our time. Canadian Brett Story teams up with producer Jeff Reichert on a new feature film,The Production of the World, continuation of the CPH:FORUM 2018 PROJECT,The hottest August.Her tone was sharp for this all-archival documentary about the brilliant, radical art critic John Berger, the CIA's infiltration of the arts during the "cultural Cold War," and the ways in which images and culture are caught in the crossfire of dirty politics. The project is funded in part by Field of Vision, Genuine Article Pictures, the Ford Foundation and Chicken & Egg Pictures.
Another archival filmmaking team, Mila Turajlic and longtime French production collaborator Carine Chichkowsky, presentedSecond world, second gender, a retelling of the first UN Women's Conference in Mexico City in 1975 through the eyes of the women who participated, addressing the challenges of unity in vast global movements and socio-economic-political systems, as told by the voices of some of the leaders who were there . Their voices today will be part of the soundtrack, but there is an urgent need to record these interviews as these women are now quite old. It will be 50 in 2025, when the film is due to be releaseduanniversary of this event. So far, the film is financed by Film Center Serbia, Turajlic's company Poppy Pictures and Chichkowsky's company Survivance.
British artist Louis Henderson does extensive audiovisual work usually on ideas that can be challenging to film. As in previous works incorporating classic literary texts, memoirs and theatrical representations,The Infinite Trial, produced by UK-based Guyanese Luke Moody and Romola Lucas, will feature filming in Georgetown, Guyana, where a group of actors will stage scenes from Wilson Harris' book of the same name. The Guyanese poet, novelist and essayist, of mixed American, European and African descent, lived his later life in Britain, specifically in Essex. Henderson and his team will try to resurrect his voice and the abstract ideas of his ecological visions. This was an extremely distinct step and the footage was great. Funding has been secured through Arts Council England and Moody's LONO Studio.
When Danish producer Signe Byrge Sørensen (Flee, The Look of Silence, The Act of Killing) you walk into a project, you know there's something to get excited about. Along with Manon Ouimet, he produced Jacob Perlmutter's debut,Two strangers trying not to kill each other.Known as Manon et Jacob, Ouimet and Perlmutter are a married couple and had their first child literally days before they took the stage in Copenhagen. In a candid/intentional way, the young couple met the elderly couple featured in their film, pitched them an idea to do a full-length portrait, and were immediately invited to move into the home of world-renowned photographer Joel Meyerowitz and the less-famous, highly successful wife, novelist-playwright-artist-musician, Maggie Barrett; The emotional and gripping teaser observes the elderly Meyerowitz and Barrett as they share their wishes about what should be done with their remains when they die. They realize they will be parted in death, setting off on a furious and passionate assessment of the stressors in their long-term relationship. Ouimet and Perlmutter are in post-production for an early 2024 release (which means Sundance, presumably) and are being financed through an equity investor, UK Core Expenditure, the Sørensen Company, Final Cut for Real and DR Danish Radio.
Finally in this category of personal favorites is another artist portrait. Scottish director Finlay Pretsell's latest film involves the same deep engagement with its subject, similar to his compelling film,Timing(2018),for much talked about professional cyclist David Millar in his latest bid for glory. Here, Pretsell has developed an immersive and deeply connected relationship with artist Douglas Gordon in a work calledDouglas Gordon: Self Divided.Gordon, who resides in Berlin, is in a fragile and dangerous state, both physically and mentally. The Turner Prize-winning artist was a hero to Pretsell at art school, and the director gained unfiltered access to the artist, who lives and works and creates in his studio, discovering a new artistic practice to survive his own nightmares. It's a fraught and risky endeavor to film a person on the brink, but this is one of those films where the relationship between director, camera and protagonist can reveal so much about the human condition. The project is produced by Sonja Henrici (who also worked with PretsellTiming). After many years managing the Scottish Documentary Institute, she has hung up her own production shingle, Sonja Henrici Creates. Their joint Edinburgh-based company Parcel of Rogues is backing the project in co-production, so far, with Paris-based Grande Ourse Films.
before the storma CPH:WIP project in post-production by directors Juan Palacios and Sofie Husum Johannesen, was the closest thing I saw to one of my all-time favorite films in 2007The mosquito problem and other stories. Before the stormis a sly disaster of climate change in the guise of a tragicomedy, all set on the tiny Danish island of Mandø in the Wadden Sea (population: 28). There is excellent filmmaking here.
Dawn of the Post Plantation isthe final chapter in a trilogy of films that Dutch director and artist Renzo Martens has been working on since 2003. Here he collaborates with an emerging artistic group of former plantation workers, CATPC (Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise). The project under development has a huge budget, with the Dutch Film Fund first. Israeli producer-director Roy Cohen's new project is in developmentFar from Mainewith Serge Gordey and Zvi Landsman producing. Cohen is poised to tell a deeply emotional and hyper-personal story of ongoing Israeli/Palestinian apartheid. Israel's governmental fundamentalism has become more protracted, violent and entrenched, and here Cohen (also a new parent just days before this event) analyzes the memories of his childhood friend, Aseel, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who was killed on its streets Jerusalem. as a "terrorist threat" by Israeli soldiers. They were fellow campers in Maine in 1997 in a program called "Seeds for Peace," a global media phenomenon at the time.
Danish director Robin Petré'sOnly on Earth, produced by Signe Skov Thomsen and Malene Flindt Pedersen, won the EurimagesCo-production Development Award, worth €20,000. The film - its footage is impressive - explores the Spanish region of Galicia, a wild and untamed region that is also one of Europe's most fire-prone landscapes. Cowboys oversee the wild horses that inhabit the mountainous region. the animals were instrumental in preventing fires by keeping the vegetation trimmed, but now face extinction due to the conflict between humans and nature. The Danish Film Institute and Creative Europe are on board.
We have always lived in the end timesis the new work of the American artist Ben Russell (he has been presented at CPH: FORUM a few times before) and he works with the powerful French producers Guillame Cailleau and Michel Balagué. A wonderful and inspiring presentation offered an incredible montage of a work in mid-production documenting one of the most successful activist uprisings in recent years, which resulted in the French state's plans to build a €580 million regional airport canceled abruptly. Russell films the community of 150 people who have occupied this western land with a beautifully crafted, patient, ethnographic approach. As Russell continued to weigh in on the perks of capturing this small community, a long shot played out on screen to illustrate his particular approach, from the following function where the philosophies behind the modes of storytelling were embedded in the pitch itself. They are currently supported by Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg, Region SUD and Jeonju Cinema Project.
Directed by Norwegian-Kurdo artist, Zaradesht Ahmed (nowhere to hide2016) and produced by Thorvald Nilsen,Lions on the Tigris Riverfocuses on the devastated city of Mosul, Iraq, which has been controlled by ISIS/Daesh for three terrifying and devastating years. Five years later, the city is in total ruin. However, the protagonists we may meet here (the film is still in very early stages of development) lead us on a magical mystery tour of resilience, pride and building some kind of spiritual gold after the destruction of their homes and city. The title comes from a rock with two lions carved on it that sits atop the mantle of a ruined house located on the bank of the Tigris River. The project is already partially funded by the Norwegian Film Institute and Movies on War Elverum.
Four different projects presented by Ukraine collectively shed light on a country that is not going to go quietly. In a show of solidarity from the European community, two of these projects won awards, the first for poet and filmmaker Iryna Tsilyk (Earth is Blue like Orange) animationred zone,will be released in early 2026. He works with producer Darya Bassel (The Moon Man), who also produced Simon Lereng Wilmont's Oscar-nominatedA house of fragments.The Eurimages Fund of the Council of Europe awarded a special co-production development prize of €20,000 to the project: “The project puts forward the idea that war not only leads to loss of life, but also has a profound impact on survivors. ways that are often underestimated. Through her personal lens as a woman, the filmmaker examines the question of what it means to be a woman in times of war." Making a feature-length animated film is time-consuming and expensive, but this nod of encouragement will see the talented duo on their way. They have funds from the IDFA Bertha Fund, Chicken&Egg Pictures and the Austrian Ministry of Culture Support.
The last work presented at this year's event, by Yegor TroyanovskyCuba & Alaska,Produced by Ukrainian producer, Olha Beskhmelnytsina and French producer, Christian Popp, won an award jointly presented by CPH:FORUM,TitraFilmandUnifrance. The inaugural Unifrance Doc Award, an award given to the best French majority or minority co-production, has a total value of €5,390.
The UkrainianDirected by Swedish producer, director and international news journalist Viktor Nordenskiöld, also producer of Beskhmelnytsina and Popp. In a case of extraordinary timing and access, Nordenskiöld will follow the Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, who was appointed to this position in the late 30s. Also a mother, Olha Stefanishyna had to separate from family and her children as she works to prepare for Ukraine's swift EU membership as part of an effort to rebuild the country. Fascinating and immediate, the visual sample depicted the ways in which the Ukrainian nation has dealt with Russian military aggression - at the time of this writing for over a full year, when the invasion was predicted to succeed in two weeks.
It was intercepteddirected by Ukrainian journalist and director Oksana Karpovych (Don't worry, the doors will open,2019) and produced by Giacomo Nudi from Montreal, Canada - where Karpovych went to school and lived for many years. He returned to Ukraine a few days before the Russian invasion. I have a special place in my heart for this director because he invited me to Kyiv in 2016 for the spectacular Docudays UA Human Rights Documentary Festival, which against all odds is set for the 19uissue in Kiev this June. In her film, which is currently in production, Karpovych travels to Ukraine, the soundtrack of wiretapped phone conversations of young, male Russian soldiers (most confused by their circumstances) talking to friends and family in Russia as they maneuver. The secretly intercepted voice files were released publicly by Ukraine's intelligence services and are available to ordinary citizens through a public YouTube channel. A haunting, elliptical, fragile approach,It was interceptedhas funding from the Quebec Arts Council, Chicken&Egg Pictures and Moon Man Productions, among others.
In Simikova's words, joining forces across borders is the only way forward, and CPH:DOX remains one of the best places to discover how artists, funders and other entities can collectively envision the future (or many futures). cinematic non-fiction.