The NEW:VISION Award is CPH:DOX’s competition for experimental, innovative, reflective documentaries and the festival presented twenty-six diverse, genre-bending pieces this year. In managing to watch them all, I experienced profound discoveries about expressing a deeply personal aesthetic in film. In a post-festival correspondence with programmer, Mads Mikkelsen, he told me, “Part of the project here is to not think in opposite terms of ‘documentary’ and ‘fiction,’ but to think in the very basic term ‘filmmaking,’ with a reference to the real. That said, there is a strong, current interest from the art world in what could be called the documentary project: reflecting on the world we live in from perspectives that acknowledge the formal potential of filmmaking. This is, of course, especially visible in the New Vision program.”
What was common amongst the films in this category was an original interpretation of that ineffable matter within us that keeps us connected to the world of dreams. Many of these film works act as amorphous metaphors for the secret sources of our spiritual and intellectual power, creating new myths in relation to our physical selves and the ways in which we interact subliminally with the physical world around us. And while all of this might be hot stuff to creative programmers and adventurous cinephiles, I wondered what kind of feedback the festival gets from local audiences. Mikkelsen again: “Well, the fun thing is that I talked to people that are not cinephiles, who had a genuine experience of change from encountering these works in a cinema. I think that is vital to the cinema-going experience: to change.” Part of his mandate from festival director, Tine Fischer, someone who is highly informed about currents in the art / gallery world, is “the very basic act of bringing these works to the screens of Copenhagen and to the public here. I do not think that the cinema space can be elitist, but perhaps that is too optimistic."
Perspective (from the Latin perspicere, to see through) is generally defined as an approximate representation, as seen by the eye, on a flat surface of an image. In their works, the makers in this category “saw through” the more impenetrable layers of our beings, transforming their material into rich storylines that animate some aspect of daily life. It is extremely encouraging that an event calling itself a documentary festival supports this kind of work. Documentary has a propensity to be a genre that can become stale all too easily with its own self-referential and myopic way of telling true stories. Many of these pieces were a slap in the face to all of that, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. (Still above from John Price's Home Movie.)
As the makers of these film and video works traverse deeply personal and quixotic territory, they often instigate an unfamiliar shift in a viewer’s perspective. Whether that intention is inadvertent or not is hard to say since so much of what these pieces offer is distinctly intuitive. But there is no doubt that when watching these films, installation pieces and other UFOs, there is a focused attention to detail and nuance, where one’s experience of a “cinematic encounter” can be redefined. But only if one meets the work at least halfway. For there is work involved to be sure, and according to filmmaker, Ben Russell, that is quite intentional.
Russell, last year’s New Vision Award winner, is an American artist that executes visionary work in contemporary experimental documentary. One afternoon during the festival, he and Canadian filmmaker, John Price, hosted a masterclass moderated by Mikkelsen. Both of these artists work on the forefront of this exploratory borderland. This year, Russell’s first feature, Let Each One Go Where He May, was part of the New Vision category, along with the seventh in his Trypps series, Trypps #7 (Badlands). John Price's latest film, Home Movie, had its European premiere at the festival and is described as “a psychedelic science fiction film with a distant relative in Tarkovsky.” Whatever you want to call it, it's gorgeous, tactile work. As well, these filmmakers make work intentionally both for the cinema as well as for installation. (Still above from Russell's Trypps #7 (Badlands)).
Referencing the historical avant-garde film tradition, along with a modern interpretation of “ethnographic” filmmaking, Russell mentioned the reinvention of cinematic space offered up by Gene Youngblood in his seminal book from 1970, Expanded Cinema. Youngblood talks about the passive versus active filmgoer encountering a cinema where there is no immediately evident structure. There is a lot of space for an audience member to exist, becoming a self-reflexive experience where one participates in that experience, actively creating meaning for that experience as one watches. Russell: “I think to ask cinema to be a representative medium is asking it to do something much less than it can do, which is to produce some other experience entirely. That’s the ambition with [my work], to create something else than what we see.”
The New Vision Award this year went to German philosopher/author/filmmaker, Hito Steyerl, for her sharply subversive and entertaining biography of an object, In Free Fall. Steyerl credits her contribution as the film’s “recycler,” instead of its director. The jury was impressed by the film’s innovative approach “that moves between critical, documentary and personal,” a trademark of Steyerl’s distinctive work and, indeed, a trademark of all the films in this category. (Still from film, pictured above.)
Israeli artist Roee Rosen’s Out (still from film, pictured below) was given a special mention by the jury, and I want to give it a special mention of my own. This staggering half-hour piece, according to the jury, “dares to employ the radical methods in the form of bodily rituals to expose the prejudices that exist within us all.” The reflections of one of the two female protagonists are especially poignant. She is the one asked to perform an exorcism in a psychosexual passion play of ritualized dominance and subordination, unglamorously staged in a sparsely furnished living room. The demon she must exorcise from her sub is Avigdor Lieberman, one of Israel’s most extreme right wing politicians, a man with virulent nationalist and racist ideologies. Quite eloquently, she speaks about him in relation to something that is inherent in the nation of Israel, as a whole. I, in turn, as the active viewer, extrapolated what she had to say into a more universal message, and it moved me deeply.
After researching Lieberman in preparation for her role as exorcist, she states, “You cannot approach an exorcism with negative feelings only; you have to be able to identify with the demon, to find empathy towards him.” As a queer feminist activist born in Israel in 1978, she and Lieberman (born 1958 in Moldova) obviously come from very different places in just about every way. Yet, she finds some things that will tie her emotionally to him. “I must say that I prefer Lieberman over most of Israel’s political system in one sense: that he tells the truth. His truth may be terrible, but at the end of the day, it is his truth. . . . My main problem as an exorcist is that Lieberman is a very evasive demon. He goes out of one body and enters another. He resides, in fact, at the heart of our collective body. Lieberman is not the demon, but only one of its incarnations. The real demon belongs to us all.”
Look for my article on Harmony Korine's guest curation at CPH:DOX in the next issue of Senses of Cinema, coming next month.