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The Preview: Seven Documentaries to Catch at CPH:DOX 2024

By Vladan Petković

Two women lay on a bed with blue floral bedsheets.

Still from Immortals. Courtesy of CPH:DOX

Twenty years after its founding, Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX has grown into one of the world’s most significant documentary film festivals, thanks to both its bold programming choices and its fast-growing market, CPH:Forum.  Filmmakers pitching projects this year include heavyweights such as Talal Derki, Mads Brügger, Errol Morris, Sky Hopinka, Rachel Leah Jones, Signe Byrge Sørensen, and Ilinca Calugareanu. The fest’s meteoric rise has especially been evident in this short post-COVID period, with last year’s main competition featuring exclusively world premieres for the first time. The 2024 DOX:Award selection repeats this feat. In the spirit of discovery, we profile seven of the most appetizing titles across the various sections. Thus films already picked up by the platforms, such as Apollo Thirteen: Survival (Netflix), won’t be covered here. 


Black Snow

Ukrainian-born documentary filmmaker and journalist Alina Simone whose work has  appeared in the New York TimesAtlanticGuardian and on Amazon Originals, arrives to the F:ACT Award competition with her first feature-length documentary, the U.S. production Black Snow. Over four years, Simone follows independent journalist and mother of three, Natalia Zubkova, who breaks a viral story when residents of a remote Siberian town discover that an abandoned coal mine has caught fire and toxic gas is pouring into their homes. The government launches a massive cover-up, and Natalia embarks on a perilous journey to uncover the full extent of the environmental disaster. Handled by Cinephil, this investigative thriller should attract attention thanks to its combination of the environmental angle with the very current topic of Russia’s surveillance state and the human drama that the protagonist goes through. 


Daughter of Genghis 

Also competing in the F:ACT Award section,  the co-directed (by filmmaker Kristoffer Juel Poulsen, photographer Christian Als, and journalist Knud Brix) Daughter of Genghis is a Danish-Swedish-French co-production represented by Taskovski Films. Over a period of seven years, it follows 33-year-old Gerel Byamba, a violent Mongolian gang leader and head of the all-female, ultra-nationalist organization Gerel Khas, which fights to protect their country from sex work and Chinese miscegenation. A contradictory, conflicted protagonist, she abandons her son on the altar of the nationalist cause, and cracks appear in her apparently tough armor. The film’s controversial star, the underworld setting ,and the story of a remote nomadic people struggling to protect their identity could conspire to become a winning mix for festivals. Fiery Q&As could propel word-of-mouth, which could in turn lead to streamer interest, and even limited theatrical distribution in more receptive territories. 


I Shall Not Hate 

The only feature-length film world-premiering at the festival that deals with the Israel-Palestine situation (the line-up includes two fresh shorts as well as recent hits such as No Other Land and Bye Bye Tiberias) is I Shall Not Hate. Competing for the Human:Rights Award, this Canadian-French co-production directed by Tel Aviv-born Tal Barda tells the story of Izzeldin Abuelaish, the first Palestinian doctor to work in an Israeli maternity ward, who graduated from Harvard. But when his apartment in Gaza is shelled in 2008, his three daughters are killed and his mission of forgiveness and reconciliation is put to the test. Combining archive footage, interviews, and animation, Barda follows his journey from a refugee camp in Gaza to the University in Toronto, as he embarks on a global campaign to eradicate hate. Even though he was quoted by Barack Obama and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Abuelaish is still haunted by grief and convinced that he must hold the Israeli government accountable in order to honor his daughters. Produced and distributed by Canadian powerhouse Filmoption International, this is a film that will definitely not struggle with exposure, especially due to the timing of its release. Abuelaish’s 2011 book of the same title received numerous awards and its positive reviews should help drive interest. 



Screening in the DOX:Award main competition, the second feature-length documentary by the relatively little-known Swiss-born, Berlin-based filmmaker Maja Tschumi, Immortals takes place during the 2019 October Revolution in Baghdad. These were the biggest protests in Iraq since the U.S. occupation of the country. Following Milo, a strong-willed feminist who dresses in her brother’s clothes in order to move freely, and Khalil, a young and ambitious filmmaker who realizes that the camera is his most powerful weapon in street battles, the film combines explosive, hand-held chaos with intimate interior scenes between Milo and her best friend. In addition to observing the protagonists’ struggles, the film moves into a subjective space where they stage their experiences with the freedom of finally being able to tell their own stories. Produced by Nadine Lüchinger of Filmgerberei, whose fiction short Ala Kachuu was nominated for an Oscar in 2022, and handled internationally by CAT&Docs, this is a film with a good chance to break out beyond festivals thanks to its topical story and dynamic mix of settings and moods. 


Life and Other Problems

The opening film of the festival, which screens both in the main DOX:Award competition and Nordic:Dox regional spotlight, is from Danish filmmaker Max Kestner (Amateurs in Space). The director uses a ten-year-old viral video of a giraffe who was euthanized by the Copenhagen Zoo as a starting point for a philosophical adventure around the world to find answers to the eternal questions on the meaning of life and death, existence of consciousness, origins of love, and how it all fits together. With contributions from scientists such as Charles Foster and Eske Willerslev, the viewer learns more about the big and small connections of the universe, even if each question inevitably spawns new ones. Although this might sound dangerously close to pretentious, the festival calls it “possibly the most fun, creative, and completely unpredictable experience of the year.” Such a high-profile launch will ensure the visibility of the film, which is produced by Vibeke Vogel at Denmark’s Bullitt Film, whose recent hits include Fantastic Machine and Revir. With the participation of UK’s Hopscotch Films (Janey, My Old School, Tish) and Swedish giant Plattform Produktion (A Tiger in Paradise and Triangle of Sadness)this film has a bright future on all fronts.  


The Nights Still Smell of Gunpowder 

Coming to the festival’s Next:Wave section for its international premiere after its bow in Berlinale’s Forum, this co-production between Mozambique, Germany, France, Portugal,  Netherlands, and Norway is directed by Mozambican filmmaker Inadelso Cosa, who debuted at IDFA 2016 with A Memory in Three Acts, a story of his country’s bloody struggle for independence from Portugal. He again turns to the past to explore his grandmother’s haunting memories of the long and violent civil war that followed the independence and cost nearly a million lives. Grandma survived it but she is sharing her village with a former rebel who is both perpetrator and victim and struggles to preserve her recollections. Fighting to save pages from the book of history, Cosa draws inspiration from such filmmakers as Joshua Oppenheimer and Pedro Costa, but with his own, singular ability to capture the past, in this dark, disquieting, and hypnotic film. International sales are handled by the Toronto-based Syndicado. It sounds like a film for connoisseurs of immersive but challenging cinema and its best chance at visibility is, hopefully, numerous upcoming festival berths. 


Phantoms of the Sierra Madre 

Norwegian director and producer Håvard Bustnes (Golden Dawn Girls) returns to the DOX:Award competition with Phantoms of the Sierra Madre, which is also screening in the Nordic:Dox section. In 2016, Danish screenwriter Lars K. Andersen had an idea for a film inspired by his childhood hero, Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad, who went on an expedition to Mexico to search for a “lost Apache tribe” in 1937. Bustnes follows Andersen as the two men attempt to find the tribe. But what initially looked like an eccentric road movie turns into an involuntary deconstruction of the mythology of the white adventurer, forcing both men to rethink their project and their own roles as cultural outsiders. Along the way, they are joined by a great-grandson of Apache warrior Geronimo, and their investigation eventually leads them to a shocking discovery in Instag’s Oslo attic. This hopefully careful approach to the delicate topic is supported by the presence of Bird Runningwater, former director of the Sundance Indigenous Program, as executive producer, which should add legitimacy to the engaging story. Produced by Bustnes’ award-winning company UpNorth (Praying for Armageddon, iHuman), this film should secure festival slots, as well as theatrical distribution at home and in co-production countries of Finland, U.S., and Mexico, if not more widely. DR Sales will certainly do its best to see to it. 

Vladan Petković is a film journalist, critic, and festival programmer. He is a correspondent for Screen International, senior writer for Cineuropa, contributing editor for IDFA's website, and head of studies of the GoCritic! training program for emerging film critics. He is a program advisor at IDFA, program director at Rab Film Festival, and a programmer at ZagrebDox, and regularly curates for other festivals and events around Europe.