This final report comes to you a little bit late, thanks to a case of jet lag and post-trip laziness. Yes, I’m back from Copenhagen and while I certainly enjoyed my time in Denmark, it’s great to be home. My final day at CPH:DOX felt fairly relaxed yet I still managed to check out four final films. It wasn’t all movies though; somewhere during a lull in my schedule I hit up one of the main streets for some shopping, picking up a sweet pair of Hummel shoes. It was actually a second attempt; the previous day a display just outside a shoe store caught my eye and when I asked the clerk for a pair of a particular shoe in my size, he politely informed me that it was a women’s shoe. It didn’t take much searching to find the male counterpart down the street at a store unfortunately named ‘The Athletes Foot’. This was almost as good as a near by clothing store called ‘Acne’. I tried to limit my shopping as I was terrified I’d misjudge the exchange rate on the Danish goods and end up destroying my bank account, so I just had myself a street crepe (with Nutella) and called it quits. On to the films!
The first film of the day I went into fairly blindly, knowing only that it was directed by Sophie Fiennes, sister of actors Ralph and Joseph. ‘Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow’ highlights the work of German artist Anselm Kiefer, a painter and sculptor who creates giant pieces working with cement, molten lead and other such materials. After moving his studio from Paris to Barjac, he begins using his large piece of land to build streets, carve out massive tunnels and erecting unusual buildings as one giant art installation. Much of the film highlights these works with long, lingering — almost Kubrickian — shots set to a haunting music by composers Jörg Widmann and György Ligeti. The most interesting aspect of the film comes from watching an artist navigate his own process and decide what works and what doesn’t. As Kiefer attempts to put the final touches on some giant paintings, the tiny choices he makes that ultimately define a finished piece from an unfinished piece probably seem completely unnoticeable or inconsequential to the untrained eye. It’s almost humorous watching him make the smallest of adjustments using fairly crude techniques, arriving at perfection by accident or total improvisation. The film walks an interesting line (whether it’s intended or not) of portraying the artist as being in control and earnest while occasionally allowing him to lean into the ridiculous cliche of the pretentious visionary that looks at a pile of dirt and exclaims ‘it’s perfect!’.
The next film was one of my most anticipated of the festival. Director Dmitry Vasyukovh’s Happy People: A Year in the Taiga spends one year following a few hunters and gatherers as they live and work in the Siberian Taiga. This version of the film is actually a 90-minute cut of what was originally a four-and-a-half hour epic about which I haven’t been able to find much info online. The task was overseen by legendary documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog, who also wrote and narrated the film. It makes sense considering the subject matter and Herzog’s interest in nature docs as of late. Happy People doesn’t have much of a plot outside of the simple idea of men going out into the wilderness to set traps and catch animals for food and pelts but the characters and their environments are really quite captivating. There are sequences that highlight the craftsmanship passed down through generations, as we watch a canoe carved by hand out of the trunk of a tree and a pair of skis built using no power tools whatsoever. It’s mesmerizing watching these men manipulate simple tools to create things that are generally taken for granted thanks to the ease of mass manufacturing. While I’m not totally sure I understand all of the benefits of using wedges to split a tree down the middle versus a circular saw, it’s certainly interesting to listen to someone passionately make a case for traditional methods. I also loved the time spent on the relationships between the hunters and their dogs. There’s an amazing bond there that’s perfectly captured in a scene in which one of the hunters returns to his village for New Years Eve. It’s a long trek that’s made easier by one of their few modern conveniences, the snowmobile. However, the dog is not allowed to ride on the vehicle. Instead, it runs full speed along side its master for the entire length of the journey. A truly touching moment that’s definitely enhanced by Herzog’s narration. Speaking of which, Herzog’s voice is a great addition to the piece and never really overtakes the film. His personality can be quite a dominating force and could have come dangerously close to upstaging the content, but he remains observational and respectful of the material. This film was definitely the highlight of the festival for me.
While I wouldn’t call myself a Bill Hicks fan, it’s merely out of ignorance rather than a distaste for the man’s comedy. I’m familiar with some of his most famous routines and his overall persona but I hadn’t really known much about the man himself. ‘American: The Bill Hicks Story’ certainly gave me some insight into his career and enlightened me on some of the more tragic elements of his short life. The film contains some great video footage of early stand up material — although I’m not entirely sure how rare most of it would be to hardcore fans — and attempts to recreate his life story using old photographs. I actually had a bit of an issue with this technique. Ever since The Kid Stays in the Picture it seems as though the 3D cut-out animation of photographs has been an overused crutch for many documentary filmmakers. While I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with it, it’s just not an aesthetic I particularly enjoy. I also wasn’t a fan of the use of Bill Hicks’ own music as the score. Sure, it’s thematically coherent and connects the music with the story but I just felt that a lot of it sounded like generic, royalty free temp tracks. His comedy was certainly cutting edge. His music? Not so much. Still, these nitpicks weren’t enough to detract from the drama of Hick’s story, his hilarious stand up material, or my overall enjoyment of the film.
Finally, I ended my time at CPH:DOX with a screening of the hour long BBC documentary ‘Another Green World’, which looks at the career of one of my favourite musicians, Brian Eno. The film attempts to provide some insight into Eno’s methods and techniques in creating his music and gives a bit of a history lesson on his career path. The film is at its best when Eno is passionately describing his approach to music and dissecting some of his favourite artists and singles of the past, pointing out the subtle techniques in record production that might go unnoticed to the untrained ear. I’m not sure the film would have anything to offer to audiences who aren’t fans of music — or Eno, perhaps — but I certainly found it to be a great look into the man’s body of work, his process, and his ideas.
So that pretty much wraps up my time at CPH:DOX! There were many highlights during my time in Copenhagen (waffles being one of them) but I think it was just a great opportunity to see some films that I might not have had a chance to see otherwise. It also didn’t hurt spending my time in a great country that I’ll hopefully have a chance to visit again in the future. Next time I might take some time to explore the city a little more but, for me, the films are first and everything else is secondary. In this regard, CPH:DOX certainly didn’t disappoint!