Ten Things I Learnt From My First Trip to CPH:DOX

Copenhagen International Documentary Festival (CPH:DOX) has been running annually in the Danish capital since 2003. Its current base is at Kunstal Charlottenborg, an institute of contemporary art in an impressive Baroque palace in the heart of the city. As well as showcasing new films in all formats, CPH:DOX runs a conference; an international pitching forum; events for children; and, for the first time this year, CPH:SCIENCE, a forum specifically for films that interface art, society and cutting edge science.

What follows is a list of the 10 things that I (Jane Ray, Artistic Director at The Whickers) learnt from my first trip to CPH:DOX…

1. The trouble with attending a documentary festival with the same first three letters as Copenhagen’s IATA airport code is that when you get up all sleepy on the first day it’s way too easy to mistake your luggage tag for your festival lanyard. Not cool.

2. Just when you’ve decided that VR content is lagging too far behind the technology to bother with you turn into a tiny, buried, brown seed, smelling the dark damp earth, pushing your way toward the light, emerging in the Amazon jungle, shooting up to the tree canopy so fast you get vertigo. Once you’re up there with your tree buddies you’re loving to watch the parrots wheeling and the sloths loafing, relishing the breeze through your branches. Then you catch that first whiff of… something burning… something that smells like… wood. Tree by Milica Zec and Winslow Porter is 7 minutes of haptically enhanced* awesome.

3. Copenhagen strikes a first timer as a super spotless urban scene, but why so many tattoo parlours? Is it that the Danes prefer to graffiti themselves? So polite.

4. It’s way too easy to develop a girl crush on Forum host, Jess Search. Dynamic – she’s also chief exec of Doc Society and a founder of Shooting People, the network for indie filmmakers – smart, big-hearted and aware. OK. I’ll stop now.

5. 7 Eleven stores in CPH:DOX land are beacons of interesting, varied and nutritious food and drink. In England, they’re not. Are we Brits really that obsessed with Quavers, slush puppies and scratch cards? I fill my pockets with Speedy Tom – acai and passionfruit 80% dark chocolate organic protein bars – and head into the night, only to find that my new obsession with these locally-produced chocolate bars is matched by my colleague Phoebe’s with Danish artisan coffee. There’s a certain look in her eyes. Then she’s off around the corner for another fix from this little place she’s discovered. We’re in foodie heaven. I had no idea.

6. CPH:DOX continuously stimulates and challenges the noggin. We attended a session featuring Laura Nix (‘Inventing Tomorrow’) in conversation with Jerry Rothwell (‘The School in The Cloud’/’How to Change the World’). Discussing how best to structure a documentary, Laura said that “information is the death of emotion”. Moving away from the easy path of interviews and “words” as the structural spine of her docs, she now focuses on shooting “scenes”. Whilst recognising that it’s often easier and quicker to build a documentary around interviews where all the key information is laid out, it was agreed that it’s more emotionally satisfying and resonant for an audience to construct a story through verite scenes.Just as I’m thinking ‘OK, this is the way it’s going folks’ I hit a wall. I mean I run into an animated documentary version of renowned playwright David Hare’s monologue, ‘Wall‘. This 82 minutes of deep thinking focuses on the barrier in Palestine that’s called a ‘separation fence’ in Hebrew and a ‘racial segregation wall’ in Arabic. It is remarkable and shows that the only rule of documentary is that there are no rules of documentary. And yet why, when it started life as a UK play, did it take the National Film Board of Canada to bring it to the screen so affectingly?

7. CPH:DOX helps forge new connections. Not just with contacts made through all the networking events and queues for the loo, but also through the juxtaposition of ideas: ‘The Devil’s Rope’ was a fascinating documentary pitch from director Florian Weigensamer and producer Christian Kermer. It proposes an expansive and metaphorical look at the 140 year history of barbed wire. Starting as an “efficient tool in land management” this cheap, spiked wire becomes “increasingly directed against humans, with the deliberate desired side effect of causing physical and mental injury, of degrading people.” An hour later and we’re watching the pitch for ‘Midnight Traveller’. The director Hassan Fazili isn’t there. Having fled the Taliban with his wife and two daughters, filming them across 7 countries over two years, he’s now imprisoned in a detention centre on the Hungarian border. His 10-year-old daughter films a message on his phone for us to see, us punters sitting on designer sofas in a Danish palace. Through the window behind Fazili’s head we notice a wall topped with barbed wire. Another piece of the shifting jigsaw slots into place.

8. Perseverance is the essential quality. Nick Aldridge has it, along with vision, raw talent and unique access to a potentially massive story. He was one of the five finalists of the Whicker Film & TV Funding Award for first time directors in 2017. Now his story, ‘What We Believe’, has moved on; it’s fitter, more focused and he’s back, acing it with a stonkingly well-received pitch. He’s also been selected for Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Meet Market this year. We’re chuffed – it feels like a family thing.

9. So you leave and you’re heading back to the airport and you’re sharing a taxi with BBC Storyville’s Shanida Scotland and you fall into another deep conversation about documentary. This time it’s about a new initiative called The Upside, and you just know that when you think it’s all over, it’s actually only just begun…

[*Haptic means involving your sense of touch. Yup, that’s the 10th thing I learnt!]

– Jane Ray, Artistic Director at The Whickers