Sound Matters: CPH:DOX
CPH:DOX (or Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival, if you prefer) has been part of an international shift towards non-fiction films that push the boundaries of how we depict our world. DOX Programme Editor & Head of Selection Committee, Mads Mikkelsen on how sound in film is changing the whole game, and why there's no such thing as an average viewer.
Interview by Nathaniel Budzinski
The cliché about documentary films goes something like: they’re worthy but excruciating to watch, driven to find the truth in our cold, hard reality – but ultimately draining the viewer’s empathy after prolonged exposure. Working deep in a documentary film festival, how do you prevent ‘empathy-burnout’?
That's a good question! Here's a confession: Going through countless films to find the best 10% percent or so can be really hard work, as you're confronted with the state of the world we live in from all angles - the good, the bad, the unexpected. Numbness is a very real threat in our line of work, I think, especially since all your decisions count equally in the end. But you just need to be aware of it to fight it off before it gets the best of you. Another confession: So to prevent this from happening, I found that music really has the potential to "reset" me. Strangely, I also found that a lot of my close colleagues and festival friends from around the world tend to share a taste for horror films. You can make of it what you want!
Are there any activist/campaigning films in the new, 2018 programme that buck that ‘worthy but boring’ preconception?
One of the films that really blew me away this year was the Afghan film Laila at the Bridge which we're premiering. The Laila in question voluntarily runs a center for the countless drug addicts in Kabul, many of whom live under truly hellish conditions under a bridge in the city center. At one point Laila calls herself the most "badass" woman in Kabul, and you really don't doubt that when you see her in action! She is up against almost everybody - from the drug mafia to a corrupt government. Another example is Silas about a Liberian activist who risks his life documenting illegal logging in his country. He is coming to the festival to talk about his work. When you see folks like Laila and Silas risk everything for others, words like "inspiring" and "idealistic" sound like empty clichés. Plus, since I think everyone should be a vegan, I think everyone should see the Jonathan Safran Foer film Eating Animals! He is coming to introduce the film, and we are broadcasting it to cinemas all over the country.
In a way, documentary films helped create a mainstream aesthetic of reality that is widespread across television and streaming platforms – what films create a convincing sense of ‘the real’ while at the same time experiment with ways of depicting reality?
A film that I am really looking forward to premiere at CPH:DOX 2018 is Welcome to Sodom, about "e-wastelands" in Ghana where hundreds of thousands of tons of electronic scrap is shipped illegally from the West to be recycled under apocalyptic conditions. This could have been a depressing report from a humanitarian disaster that could have left its viewers, well, numb - or at least passive. Instead, the filmmakers invited the people who live in the middle of the whole thing to participate creatively in making an epic and audiovisually stunning film that will most surely make waves once it is released. It is an ideal example of contemporary documentary between art and political impact. You just won't be able to look at a laptop in the same way after this film.
How important is sound for documentary film?
Sound is literally the "overlooked" dimension of cinema. But sound in documentary is actually changing the whole game as we speak. For example, Welcome to Sodom is as much a sound experience as a visual one - at least when you see it in ideal conditions in a cinema which is part of the raison d'être of film festivals in the first place. After a period when sparse minimalism was dominant in cutting edge cinema, the sensory and immersive is now where it's at. The CPH:DOX winner Leviathan (2012) is a film that deserves endless credit for paving the way for the new sound film (or the New Sound Film - film programmers are always competing to claim discoveries like that!) This change most likely has a lot to do with technological inventions that I would never be able to understand a thing of anyway, but technology is nothing without creativity.
What do you want the average viewer to take away from their experience of DOX?
CPH:DOX was my favourite festival before I started working there 10 years ago, so it was kind of like joining your favourite band. I was there, front row center, and to me there is no such thing as an average viewer. The one thing that matters more to me than anything else in all this, is that first meeting between the film, the filmmaker and the audience. That is what a film festival is all about. I generally hope that our audiences will take chances when deciding what to see, so if anything I hope they will take away something unexpected.
In terms of the artists, how important are festivals like DOX for them, and what experience do you hope the artists take away?
Almost all the filmmakers who have films in our programme are also coming to present their work. It is quite overwhelming when you think of it. But they also come to meet each other, to network, to see other filmmakers' work, to do business and interviews, and so on. Festivals have really become the place where this exchange take place, and even in a time of streaming and VOD you cannot underestimate how festivals contribute to film culture and culture at large - in all lack of modesty, of course.
How do you want DOX to contribute to film, and to culture in general?
You don't become a film festival programmer unless you're a boundless idealist - at least not a documentary programmer! I think the ideal film festival - and that's what we are striving to be - is something between an uncompromising artistic free-space and a social laboratory for new things to happen: artistically, socially, culturally. I hope we can contribute to a sense of curiosity, imagination and intellectual tolerance through everything we do at CPH:DOX. And I hope that our audiences will bring all that to the festival as well.