“All Who Dream Are Not Equal”: The 2023 CPH:FORUM
A document is always an outsider’s view. –John Berger
It had been five years since I attended CPH:Forum, with a pandemic in between. I’m having a lot of trouble recognizing once-familiar things in general but I know CPH:DOX well, having attended off and on for over 12 years, and I know that it used to stand for something unique in the nonfiction landscape. And while vestiges are still there, it felt this edition (March 15 – 26 in Copenhagen, Denmark) as if the whole enterprise was at a tipping point in terms of growth. Don’t misunderstand: What the team there accomplishes, on ever-diminishing budgets and resources, is miraculous, as was every project I saw presented at the Forum in some way. It could be some nostalgic longing on my part, perhaps: I do miss the cozier, more intimate ways in which this particular event was staged. The organization, as a whole, is bidding to be one of the largest and most important documentary festivals, along the likes of IDFA, and perhaps get a bigger slice of the funding pie. That kind of exponential growth necessitates some kind of trade-off and will continue to change the profile of what kinds of projects it seeks to support.
Should filmmakers, both seasoned and emerging, try their best to get into a pitch forum of this scale and influence? Despite the wear and tear on the psyche from taking meeting after meeting, a forum like CPH’s is a useful spectacle to be a part of, like a débutante ball where you’re trotted out in front of influential people to do a turn, present yourself publicly and, if nothing else, garner some well-deserved moral support from the community. But most filmmakers I spoke to seemed a bit let down from their encounters with potential funders and co-production partners this year, and I’m still a bit bewildered by the matchmaking process. I was told by a sales and acquisition executive that potential experts are sent the list of projects as early as February, when the Berlinale begins, and before they’re able to ascertain much about the projects, to choose who they’d like to meet with. The CPH:FORUM team, led by head of industry and training, Tereza Simikova, who is leaving this role after five years, choose the funders and professionals to be onstage to weigh in on the presentations, and to say a bit about what they do and what they look for in a project. There were quite a few instances where the person brought on stage was already supporting the project, I suppose as a bid for other observers to get on board. But filmmakers do not receive any pitch training — which is an important component to helping teams deliver better presentations in their seven on-stage minutes — and cancellations of meetings were quite common.
CPH:DOX has been one of the very few international festivals to always include a substantial representation of Canadian and American filmmakers, executives and exhibition folks. More and more, European events like this are beckoning to North America; for example, the 27-year-old Ji.hlava International Documentary Festival in the Czech Republic opened its Forum a couple of years ago to North American-based filmmakers, an acknowledgment that what will sustain us all in this particular milieu has to be a kind of inclusivity that’s never been available before.
What follows is a cherry-picked selection of presentations that excited me, moved me and made me look forward to the day I might be able to watch the finished films. Some of these include a couple of projects presented at the sparsely attended CPH:WIP the day before the main three-day event in the same venue. After six editions of a Nordic-only works-in-progress pitch, the 2023 edition at CPH presented eight projects, both Nordic and international, offering a kinder, gentler and more expansive way to talk about projects in medias res. With less bells and whistles, the presentations in this preceding event were moderated solely by a very intelligent and sensitive host in Gitte Hansen, a Danish consultant and mentor and the former executive producer of more than 20 international documentaries and series for First Hand Films. Here, the director-producer teams had twice the time — 15 minutes to expound on what they’re making and show several examples of visual material instead of just a teaser. No experts come on stage to weigh in, so there’s a much lighter, less disruptive choreography all-round. (I still don’t see the value of the larger event’s gangs of three that offer feedback and banter from the stage and ask sometimes astoundingly dense questions that they could pose later in private meetings. It takes away from the space and time filmmaking teams should have to share their project. I intensely dislike this format and, judging from the majority of filmmakers I spoke to, so do they. It makes an already nerve-wracking endeavor that much more so.)
Over the course of four days, I watched 40 presentations. I’d like to give a shout-out to South African filmmaker Milisuthando (Mili) Bongela, who helped parse the journey for us every day in an earnest and generous way. In tag teams of two, she co-hosted the Forum with road-tested, audience-approved long-time interlocutors, Jess Search and Tabitha Jackson, outstanding mentors to work under in any circumstance. Whether this is a bid to pass the mantle soon to a younger generation of moderator (please!), having a working filmmaker help direct traffic, keep time and manage the event from the stage added a needed perspective and freshness to the proceedings.
Between the two events there were stories of historical reckoning, political conflict, the uses and abuses of technology, the search for justice and equality, animal rights, young people facing war (with an obvious spotlight on projects coming out of Ukraine at the moment), displacement due to environmental catastrophe/climate change, and dire threats to individuals in certain cultures due to their trans-identities, along with a couple of very delicate and deeply personal literary/artistic portraits—a panoply of what (one hopes) preoccupies the modern human.
There were projects in development about the fraying mental health of the world’s youth, narratives centered on the beleaguered generation of teens and young adults who are facing what feels like the end times socially, environmentally, and otherwise. WIP projects that spoke to this directly included Adil Khan’s Adil (Norway), an animated feature that also uses live action and visual effects to tell the larger story behind the subject’s personal story, delivered in a lecture that’s already been shared with half a million young people about his struggle with mental illness. Other projects centering the modern adolescent experience included Camilla Magid’s Fighting Demons with Dragons (Denmark), shot at a Danish boarding school that uses role-play and avatars to help students combat various social and emotional challenges. From the main Forum presentations, Hannah Reinikainen and Lia Hietala’s Our Love (Sweden, Finland, Germany), and Virpi Suutari’s Once Upon a Time in a Forest (Finland) dive into the worlds of teens.
On the flip side were projects focused on the elderly (or, in the case of one, someone who has already passed). The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks, a beautiful mixed media feature presented as a WIP, is directed by Dempsey Rice, who spent much time with Sacks while he was alive, and produced by Lori Cheatle, US, UK. They’ve realized almost half of their budget through BFI/Doc Society, Kickstarter, The New York State Council on the Arts and The Lucius & Eva Eastman Fund, among others.
This piece’s headline comes from Malian director Ousmane Samassekou’s project in development, Dreamscape (a small amount of its total budget has been realized from Paris-based Grande Ourse Films). Samassekou returns to a central character from his The Last Shelter, whose story is one of three about people caught between the dreams and ambitions for their lives and the brutal reality of abandonment, climate change, nationlessness, and lack of opportunity to move forward and realize their desired goals—individuals already trapped within the strictured borders of their circumstances. Like many of the projects, Dreamscape, in its own way, presents as a disruption—not only of individual lives and storytelling tropes, but disruption in systems that documentary makers dream of exposing in ways that will instigate change.
Written and directed by London-based filmmaker Suki Chan and produced by Aimara Reques (UK), Conscious is funded in part through a joint initiative between US-based Sandbox Films and the Sundance Institute. And The Ground Beneath Our Feet, directed by Yrsa Roca Fannberg (a nurse in the old age home in Rekjavík, Iceland where she’s been photographing and filming her subjects for years on 16mm), is produced by Hanna Björk Valsdottir in an Icelandic-Polish co-production. Rice, Chan and Fannberg have garnered (or, in Rice’s case, been bequeathed a personal archive of Sacks’s) marvelous and profound access to their protagonists facing dementia, a weakening body and death in ways we haven’t seen before on screen.
Each of these directors has spent years with their subjects developing a visual and aural language glorious in its commitment to search for the ineffable in a rapidly deteriorating being closer to death than to life with a mind drifting incrementally into the spaces of hallucination. Instead of a strictly scientific look at what happens to the human brain and psyche, the sense of identity of the person in the midst of becoming untethered from the world has to be the loneliest journey of all. As Fannberg states: “Show me the beauty and the grief of old people at Grund! From the Earth we come and to Her we shall return.” Glorious, groundbreaking, multivalent portraiture.
Turning to ideas of non-human sentience, the powerhouse team that made Academy-Award-nominated Ascension, director Jessica Kingdon and producer Nathan Truesdell, presented their Untitled Animal Project, a global supply-chain journey through both a human and non-human lens. As in Ascension, the film means to link disparate locations and systems of capitalism and global food production into a whirring machine of its own. This project has also been funded, in part, also by the Sandbox Films-Sundance Grant, as well as by Impact Partners and Field of Vision.
Other aspects of artistic portraiture appeared in the kind of work CPH:DOX was one of the first festivals to really champion. Here, I’ll highlight five of them that come from five of my very favorite nonfiction filmmakers of our day. Canadian Brett Story is partnering with producer Jeff Reichert on a new feature film, The Production of the World, a follow-up to her 2018 CPH:FORUM PROJECT, The Hottest August. Her pitch was sharp for this all-archival documentary about brilliant, radical art critic John Berger, the CIA’s infiltration of the arts during the “cultural Cold War” and the ways in which images and culture get caught in the crossfire of dirty politics. The project is funded in part by Field of Vision, Genuine Article Pictures, Ford Foundation and Chicken & Egg Pictures.
Another archival filmmaking team, Mila Turajlic and her longtime French producing partner Carine Chichkowsky, presented Second World, Second Sex, a re-telling of the very first UN Women’s Conference in Mexico City in 1975 through the eyes of the women who participated, addressing the challenges of unity in huge global movements and socio-economic-political systems as told through the voices of some of the leaders who were there. Their present-day voices will be part of the soundtrack, but there is urgency in recording these interviews since these women are now quite old. 2025, when the film is due to release, will be the 50th anniversary of this event. So far, the film is funded by Film Center Serbia, Turajlic’s company, Poppy Pictures, and Chichkowsky’s company, Survivance.
British artist Louis Henderson makes expansive audiovisual work usually on ideas that can be a challenge to cinematize. As in previous works that incorporate classic literary texts, memoir and theatrical recreations, The Infinite Rehearsal, produced by UK-based Luke Moody and Romola Lucas from Guyana, will involve filming in Georgetown, Guyana, where a group of actors will stage scenes from Wilson Harris’s book of the same name. The Guyanese poet, novelist and essayist, of mixed Amerindian, European and African descent, lived out his later life in Britain, specifically in Essex. Henderson and team will endeavor to resurrect his voice and the abstract ideas of his ecological visions. This was an outstandingly articulate pitch and the footage was glorious. Funding has been secured through Arts Council England and Moody’s LONO Studio.
When Danish producer Signe Byrge Sørensen (Flee, The Look of Silence, The Act of Killing) steps onto a project, you know there’s something to get excited about. Along with Manon Ouimet, she is producing Jacob Perlmutter’s début feature, Two Strangers Trying Not to Kill Each Other. Known as Manon et Jacob, Ouimet and Perlmutter are a married couple and had had their first child literally a couple of days before taking the stage in Copenhagen. In serendipitous/purposeful fashion, the young couple met the elderly couple who appear in their film, pitched to them an idea of making a feature-length portrait and were promptly invited to move into the home of world-famous photographer Joel Meyerowitz and his less-famous, hugely accomplished wife, novelist-playwright-artist- musician, Maggie Barrett. The emotional and thrilling teaser observes the elderly Meyerowitz and Barrett as they share their wishes of what’s to be done with their remains when they die. They realize that they will be apart in death, setting off a furious and passionate reckoning of the stressors in their long-term relationship. Ouimet and Perlmutter are in post-production for an early 2024 release (meaning Sundance, probably) and are funded through an equity investor, UK Core Expenditure, Sørensen’s company, Final Cut for Real and DR Danish Radio.
Lastly, in this category of personal faves is another artist portrait. Scottish director Finlay Pretsell’s latest involves the same kind of deep bonding with his subject, akin to his thrilling film, Time Trial (2018), about controversy-ridden professional cyclist David Millar in his last bid for glory. Here, Pretsell has been developing an immersive and deeply connected relationship with artist Douglas Gordon in a project called Douglas Gordon: Self Divided. Gordon, who resides in Berlin, is the Turner Prize-winning artist was a hero to Pretsell in art school. His passion and dedication towards Gordon was palpable in the pitch and he has gained unfiltered access to the artist, who lives and raves and creates in his studio, unearthing a new artistic practice. This is one of those films wherein the relationship between director, camera lens, and protagonist can reveal so much about the human condition, particularly from an artist who struggles with his demons in order to use them as fodder for his artistic expression. The project is produced by Sonja Henrici (who also partnered with Pretsell on Time Trial). After many years of managing the Scottish Documentary Institute, she’s hung her own production shingle, Sonja Henrici Creates. Their joint Edinburgh-based company, Parcel of Rogues is supporting the project in co-production, so far, with Paris-based, Grande Ourse Films.
Before the Storm, a CPH:WIP project in post-production from directors Juan Palacios and Sofie Husum Johannesen, was the closest thing I saw to one of my all-time favorite films, 2007’s The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories. Before the Storm is a sly climate change catastrophe in the guise of a tragi-comedy, all taking place on the tiny Danish Wadden Sea island of Mandø (population: 28). There is brilliant filmmaking on display here.
The Dawn of the Post Plantation is the final chapter in a trilogy of films Dutch filmmaker and artist Renzo Martens has been working on since 2003. Here he’s collaborating with an emergent artistic collective of former plantation workers, CATPC (Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise). The project in development has a hefty budget, with the Dutch Film Fund the first in. Israeli producer-director Roy Cohen’s new project in development is Far From Maine with Serge Gordey and Zvi Landsman producing. Cohen is ready to tell a deeply emotional and über-personal story of the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian apartheid. Israel’s governmental fundamentalism has only gotten more protracted, violent and ingrained, and here Cohen (also a brand-new parent days before this event) parses through the memories of his childhood friend, Aseel, a Palestinian citizen of Israel killed in the streets of Jerusalem as a “terrorist threat” by Israeli soldiers. They were fellow campers in Maine back in 1997 in a program called “Seeds for Peace,” a global media phenomenon at the time.
Danish filmmaker Robin Petré’s Only on Earth, produced by Signe Skov Thomsen and Malene Flindt Pedersen, won the Eurimages Co-production Development Award, valued at €20,000. The film—her development footage is spectacular—explores the Spanish region of Galicia, a wild and untamed area that’s also one of Europe’s most prone-to-fires landscapes. Cowboys oversee the wild horses that reside in the mountainous region; the animals have been instrumental in preventing fires by keeping the vegetation cropped but are now facing extinction owing to the conflict between humans and nature. The Danish Film Institute and Creative Europe are on board.
We Have Always Lived in the End Times is American artist Ben Russell’s new project (he’s presented at CPH: FORUM a couple of times before), and he teams with power-house French producers Guillame Cailleau and Michel Balagué. A wonderful and inspiring presentation offered up an incredible montage of a project in the midst of production documenting one of the most successful activist rebellions of recent times, which resulted in the French state’s plans for the construction of a regional airport priced at €580 million to abruptly be cancelled. Russell is filming with the 150-strong community that has taken over that western land in a beautifully wrought, patient, ethnographic approach. As Russell continued to weigh in the privileges of capturing this small community, a long take played out on the screen to illustrate his particular approach, form following function wherein the philosophies behind the modes of storytelling were embedded within the actual pitch itself. They currently have support from Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg, Region SUD, and the Jeonju Cinema Project.
Directed by Kurdish-Norwegian artist, Zaradesht Ahmed (Nowhere to Hide, 2016) and produced by Thorvald Nilsen, The Lions at the River Tigris centers on the destroyed city of Mosul, Iraq, controlled by ISIS/Daesh for three terrifying and destructive years. Five years on, the city is in total ruin. However, the protagonists we might meet here (the film is still in very early stages of development) guide us through a magical mystery tour of resilience, pride, and the making of some kind of spiritual gold after their homes and city are destroyed. The title comes from a rock with two lions carved on it that sits above the mantel of a destroyed house that sits on the shore of the Tigris River. The project is already funded in part by the Norwegian Film Institute and Movies on War Elverum.
Four diverse projects presented out of Ukraine collectively illuminated a country that is not going to go quietly. In a show of solidarity from the European community, two of those projects won prizes, the first for poet and filmmaker Iryna Tsilyk’s (The Earth is Blue as an Orange) feature animation Red Zone, set for release in early 2026. She is working with producer Darya Bassel (Moon Man), who also produced Simon Lereng Wilmont’s Oscar-nominated A House Made of Splinters. The Council of Europe’s Eurimages Fund gave a special co-production development award worth €20,000 to the project: “The project puts forth the notion that war not only results in the loss of lives, but also has a profound impact on the survivors, in ways that are often understated. Through her personal lens as a woman, the filmmaker examines the question of what it means to be a woman during times of war.” To do a feature animated film is time-consuming and costly but this nod of encouragement will see the talented duo on their way. They have funds in place from IDFA Bertha Fund, Chicken&Egg Pictures and the Austrian Ministry of Culture Support.
The last project to pitch at this year’s event, Yegor Troyanovsky’s Cuba&Alaska, produced by Ukrainian producer, Olha Beskhmelnytsina and French producer, Christian Popp, won a prize collectively given by CPH:FORUM, TitraFilm and Unifrance. The inaugural Unifrance Doc Award, a prize given to the best pitch for a French majority or minority co-production is worth a total value of €5,390.
The Eukrainian is directed by Swedish producer, director and international news journalist, Viktor Nordenskiöld, and also produced by Beskhmelnytsina and Popp. In an instance of superb timing and access, Nordenskiöld will follow the Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, appointed to this post in her late 30s. A mother as well, Olha Stefanishyna has had to separate from her family and children as she works to prepare for Ukraine’s fast-track membership into the EU as part of a bid to rebuild the country. Fascinating and immediate, the visual sample illustrated the ways the Ukrainian nation has held fast against Russian military aggression—at the time of this writing for over an entire year, when the forecast was that the invasion was to succeed in two weeks’ time.
Intercepted is directed by Ukrainian journalist and filmmaker, Oksana Karpovych (Don’t Worry, the Doors Will Open, 2019) and produced by Giacomo Nudi out of Montreal, Canada— the place Karpovych went to school and lived for many years. She re-located back to Ukraine just days before the Russian invasion. I have a special place in my heart for this filmmaker because she invited me to Kyiv in 2016 for the spectacular Docudays UA International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival, which against all odds is set for its 19th edition in Kyiv this June. In her film, currently in production, Karpovych journeys through Ukraine, her soundtrack that of intercepted phone conversations of young, male Russian soldiers (most bewildered by their circumstances) speaking with friends and relatives in Russia as they go on maneuvers. Secretly intercepted, the voice files were publicly released by Ukrainian intelligence and are available to ordinary citizens via a public YouTube channel. A haunting, elliptical, fragile approach, Intercepted has funding in place from Quebec Arts Council, Chicken&Egg Pictures, and Moon Man Productions, among others.
In the words of Simikova, joining forces across borders is the only way forward and CPH:DOX is still one of the absolute best places to discover how forward-thinking artists, funders and other entities can collectively envision the future (or several futures) of cinematic nonfiction.
Editor’s Note: This article has been edited after publication to protect the privacy of a project during its production.