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CPH:DOX 2019: VR and DOX:AWARD Standouts at the Sweet Sixteen Edition

By Lauren Wissot

Though I’m a nonfiction cinephile who’s been attending Copenhagen’s always invigorating CPH:DOX for nearly half a decade, this past 2019 edition (March 20-31) proved especially delightful when it came to the virtual realm. Conveniently located on the top floor of the fest’s Kunsthal Charlottenborg (contemporary art museum) headquarters, the VR:Cinema and its accompanying Inter:Active installations had me raving in a way I normally reserve for the moving image.

While Eliza McNitt’s three-part (seven-figure dealmaking) planetarium-in-a-headset Spheres was wowing the crowds as it did at last year’s Sundance, a trio of less buzzy gems had me most excited about the future of immersive media. Disparate in subject, they nonetheless shared what I’m hoping is a harbinger of a “slow VR movement”—a focus less on the bells and whistles (or rather, controllers and buttons) of the tech, and more on the creation of a contemplative experience for the user to digest. (Personally, I usually prefer to be a passive participant with the artistic vision firmly in control, rather than an active avatar in some complicated video game simulation.)

To that end, and as a longtime fan of industrial music godfather Blixa Bargeld, I was inclined to like Maya Puig’s Das Totale Tanz Theater 360, which turns Einstürzende Neubauten’s “Si Takka Lumi” into a mind-blowing, music-video-meets-VR experience. Inspired by Walter Gropius and part of The Bauhaus Project—and professionally choreographed by Richard Siegal —the conceptual artwork might best be described as minimalist Cirque du Soleil performed by Star Wars stormtroopers. And because its six-minute running time left me hankering for more, I walked straight from the VR:ART program and over to the adjacent room to try Puig’s companion installation. Das Totale Tanz Theater allows the participant, using a simple controller, to navigate the piece from different angles, changing one’s relationship to the dancers and the space via various POVs. It’s the virtual world as a stage, and all of us merely players.

Another project that rocked my world, Harmke Heezen, Mike Robbins and Nicolas Thépot’s triptych The Master’s Vision, may just be the future of museum-going, an audio tour inside the minds of history’s greatest artists, dispensed while we walk into their paintings. While I found exploring both Edvard Munch's The Sun and Caspar David Friedrich's Monk by the Sea quite entrancing, it was Claude Monet's Water Lilies that proved positively sublime. Then again, I’m a sucker for aquatic excursions, and “floating” in Monet’s peaceful pond was one of the most surreally uplifting experiences I had at the fest.

For similar reasons, Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s Re-Animated is already a strong contender to be my favorite VR experience of the year. Dropped into a poetic version of Jurassic Park, Re-Animated allows the participant to feel the lush, water-soaked environment of the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i, to hear the call of the beautiful õ’õ-bird—extinct since 1987—and to deeply reflect on the beauty of the natural world, all while grieving the many wonders that we continue to callously destroy.

As for the actual documentary film part of CPH:DOX, I was able to catch a number of strong flicks thanks to my serving on the Danish film magazine Ekko’s International Critics Jury (for the fourth year in a row), which required me to watch every single one of the main competition DOX:AWARD nominees. While the festival jury handed the top prize (and its 5K euros) to John Skoog’s hybrid Ridge—an ambitious and atmospheric portrait of life in a small Swedish town that I found less than intoxicating—the film that nabbed Special Mention, Pia Hellenthal’s Searching Eva, was actually my choice for best of the dozen.

With its exquisitely composed shots, Hellenthal’s cinematic and strange portrait features a refreshingly honest, very millennial protagonist—a gender-ambiguous, freelance sex worker and sometime fashion model journeying restlessly to a meaningful life while journaling it all online. From comparing her Italian hometown to “one of those video games where you wander around and click on shit and nothing happens at all,” to never feeling “like I was that thing people mean when they say ‘girl’…but I like the body I was born in, since it’s sinuous and dynamic,” to either wanting “to go to the beach or start a revolution—depends on what my friends are up to,” Searching Eva is also pure poetry in motion.

Other standouts included The Disappearance of My Mother, Beniamino Barrese’s lovingly cinematic (and Sundance-premiering) portrait of an intellectual feminist who happens to be both an iconic fashion model and the filmmaker’s own mom. The film’s as quiet and meditative as its radical protagonist is vocal, and uncompromisingly direct, in her decision to leave everyone and everything behind. 

Then there was Karen Stokkendal Poulsen’s On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship, a blow-by-blow, behind-the-scenes account of the political machinations that led to the hopeful rise and downward spiral of Burma—told through intimate interviews with the country’s straight-talking military commanders and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi herself. What makes the doc so remarkably chilling, though, is its slow-motion, literary tragic unfolding, which leads to the inevitable clash with the Rohingya, rendering the flick a thriller, and genocide the cinematic time bomb under the table.

Similar in tone and scale, Petra Costa’s Netflix doc The Edge of Democracy, with its operatic score and panoramic shots of the Brazilian capital evoking the high stakes at hand, is an insightful, backroom, fly-on-the-wall dive into the recent wave of political upheavals ripping apart the filmmaker’s homeland. And it’s an act made all the more personal since the filmmaker’s own parents were underground militants during the military dictatorship (thus affording her intimate access to fellow fighters Lula and Dilma), while her grandparents had ties to the ruling elite (thus widening the film to encompass a more complicated perspective).

Less grand but equally compelling was Sarah J Christman’s Swarm Season, in which a volcanic island transforms into an alien realm, one populated with bizarre beings—from bees (both wild and assembly line-produced), to man-made wind farms, to Mars simulation participants. Highly unusual, with its off-kilter images, a sci-fi sound design, and Terrence Malick-like attention to the natural world (complete with child narrator), the meditative doc deftly juxtaposes a breathtaking Hawaiian landscape with the indigenous folks trying to protect it—and their way of life—from corporate industry (tourist, science and real estate alike).

Finally, a pair of films addressing the ongoing refugee crisis in new and inventive ways—as opposed to Ai Weiwei’s surprisingly disappointing, run-of-the-mill conventional The Rest—caught my eye. Enrico Masi’s Shelter is a patient and poetic look at displacement through the gaze of a seldom-seen narrator (both literally, as we never see her face, and in the larger sense), a transgender wanderer traversing still countryside, green forest and urban landscape, and whose final destination is “the moon.” By taking a quiet experimental approach to a worldwide catastrophe—one our Filipina protagonist insightfully likens to a reverse colonization—the filmmaker silences all the media noise (while momentarily curing me of my own refugee crisis doc fatigue).

Likewise, Dina Naser’s Tiny Souls is a smart and intimate look at asylum seekers, in this case through the eyes of one talkative Syrian girl and her equally effusive siblings, all adding heartfelt dimension to an otherwise overwhelming catastrophe. More powerful than any abstract headline is Naser’s slow pan set to an evocative string score, which reveals graffitied words across a wall at Jordan’s massive Zataari camp: “I may not be living in my homeland, but my homeland lives in me.”

As for the risk-taking artistic spirit of nonfiction fests, it’s alive and well and living in Copenhagen.


Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for SalonBitchThe Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.