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“The Empathy Machine”: The 2024 CPH:FORUM

An overhead view of a seated audience in a large auditorium.CPH: Forum (Photo by Emil Agerskov)

CPH:FORUM, CPH:DOX’s international financing and co-production event, is growing in terms of attendance and international interest. Its overall remit is promoting and amplifying development and financing for risk-taking, visually strong projects leaning towards nonfiction—but impact journalism features, as well as a deep interest in science and technology, are equally vital, making for an interesting mix of ambitious projects. This year was the Forum’s 16th edition and the first without the electric, dedicated and loving presence of the late, great Jess Search as the OG MC. Search dedicated her career to nurturing, caring and challenging the wider documentary community, and her passing has left a crater-sized hole in everyone’s hearts — she was, simply, irreplaceable. At CPH:FORUM this year, her spirit was evoked every morning in the form of a brief dance party in the aisles of the Staerekassen theater — a prayer of thanks in disco form, because Jess loved a dance party like no one’s business and created one everywhere she went.

The Director of UK’s Doc Society and Jess’s wife and life partner, Beadie Finzi, was on hand to help open the Forum proceedings alongside CPH:INDUSTRY managing director Katrine Killgaard, artistic director Niklas Engstrøm and new head of industry and training Mara Gourd-Mercado, a great pick for this role. Gourd-Mercado led Montreal’s boutique RIDM documentary festival into a growth period, establishing it and its market on the international doc landscape, so she brings a wide network to the CPH:DOX table: “It allows me to deepen those connections and …be a bridge between North America and Europe,” she said. Finzi was also at the opening with Jad Abi-Khalil, executive director of Lebanon-based cultural association for Arab cinema Aflamuna (formerly known as Beirut DC) to announce the début of the DISCO Network’s Independence Project presentation and workshop, which advocates for independent documentaries across culture, society and democracy. You can read more about their “declaration of independence” here.

And now to the business of this year’s event.

“Classic Pitch” (à la Coke Classic TM): In the main Forum, the format is a line-up of 32 projects presented by their filmmakers on stage and over three days. Each team has seven minutes to present, followed by seven minutes of feedback from a panel of three decision-makers. The model has shifted a bit so that moderators—this year, independent film executive Tabitha Jackson; founder/executive director of DOCUBOX, The East African Documentary Film Fund, Judy Kibinge; and senior advisor, documentary at the Nordic Film & TV Fund, Karolina Lidin—ask each panelist to briefly state something about their organization or company and then offer (supportive) takes. This is a bit of a (positive) shift from the cruder ask of sharing whether or not the project would be something they would fund. Some panelists are intimate with the project and have already been taking meetings; in a couple of cases, they were basically “moles,” to use Charlotte Cook’s term, since they had already put in some money and other commitments for a project they had been called to comment upon. After a full morning of presentations with requisite coffee break, there is a rushed and frenetic lunch break, then one-on-one meetings are taken for the rest of the afternoon, with presentation teams going door-to-door to sell their wares. Participants then perhaps catch a film and go to an industry-packed cocktail party before heading back to their hotel rooms feeling lonely and bereft and faced with mountains of neglected work. For filmmakers, it’s really exhausting.

I first attended the WIP (works-in-progress) presentations last year, a sort of prelude before the main Forum, along with the CHANGE presentations that precede the WIPs, which unfortunately I always miss. A kinder, gentler version of “classic,” the WIP section was moderated this year by Dani Carlaw, head of unscripted, Screen Scotland, while Sean Flynn, program director of Points North Institute, moderated the CHANGE presentations. With moderators serving as both hosts and interlocutors, the filmmaking teams get the lion’s share of their allotted 15 minutes and are able to show longer, more extended visual samples of what they’re making as well as deliver a deeper explanations of the intricacies of their films. The WIP section has shifted from strictly Nordic to international, and CHANGE is a development co-production training program, focused on documentary projects from European Eastern Partnership Countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, hot spots both sociopolitically as well as artistically. 

Last year, the WIP was on Sunday afternoon and had very sparse attendance. This year, a Monday afternoon time slot brought many more spectators, including participants of the Talents program, INTRO:DOX and DOX:ACADEMY — a great way for emerging artists to observe firsthand what a public/accredited presentation looks and feels like. Like the projects in the main Forum, the WIP projects have confirmed funding that’s sometimes more robust than the projects in the Forum. Presentations tended to be from proven-track-record makers  who are for the most part well-versed in public pitching. According to Gourd-Mercado, “The WIP is meant for projects in need of finishing funds, missing that gap financing between 10-20%. That is why they come with robust financing. Projects in the Forum range from development to production. Once they hit the post-production ‘nearing completion’ phase, they are programmed in the WIP.” 

Overarching themes this year included AI as part of a film’s narrative, as in Piotr Rafal Winiewicz’s About a Hero, an adaptation of a script written by a large language model custom-trained on Werner Herzog’s body of work. (Surrealism is apparently very on trend.) A fictional narrative intertwined with interviews with artists, philosophers and scientists, it’s a self-reflexive essay on originality, authenticity, immortality and soul in the age of AI. This is an example of the kind of complex, mind-bending (at least on paper) multivalent approach CPH loves to champion. Level of difficulty to fund, make and market on a scale of one to ten? 11. The project means to address the evolving landscape of AI technology and its potential(s) in enhancing artistic expression. Enticing? Dread-inducing? Both.

Setting aside my questions surrounding our future AI collaborators, two other themes felt very present to me this year. One was an emphasis on children’s POVs in a series of beautiful projects that put children’s voices, experiences and sensibilities about the world front and center. Examples were Ukrainian Tetiana Khodakivska’s The Blue Sweater with a Yellow Hole and a China-Netherlands project from Dongnan Chen, Whispers in May. The other theme that popped out was  an exploration of east vs. west, north versus south, latitudinal and longitudinal sensibilities, and where each of us might fall or straddle these divides globally, philosophically, geographically and artistically. Some striking projects engaged with various migrant crises around the globe, military conflicts, war and even a bizarre twist on matchmaking. Morten Traavik and Mary Sun Kim gave a marvelous presentation, inflected with humor and pathos, of their project, North South Man Woman, a story about businesswoman Han Yujin’s marriage agency that matches female North Korean defectors, like Han herself, with South Korean men. The Korean proverb “nam-nam buk-nyeo” expresses the notion that the most beautiful women live in the peninsula’s northern half while the most handsome men reside in the south, offering a romantic bid for reunification—but a privileged take for sure, since many “beautiful” and young North Korean women are sold into forced labor/slavery to China, and it’s not a very humorous or charming cultural exchange in the least. I’m not trashing light-hearted fare by any stretch, but given what might be one of the very last-standing mega-festivals, CPH is sort of obligated at this point to really engage with what’s happening around us on a more urgent level.

Since I adore stories of family—its pains and sorrows, its sources of solace and comfort and belonging—Pepa Lubojacki’s Czech Republic-Slovakian project If Pigeons Turned to Gold was a standout. (I’m a fan of poetic titles too.) Using a mosaic-like structure to tell the story of her own family, Lubojacki is following four relatives over the course of years, mapping the journeys of a sibling, a cousin and Lubojacki’s lineage of family suffering from life-long, protracted drug addiction and her desperate bid to escape and outlive a legacy of cyclic trauma. Both on film and in person, Lubojacki is a galvanic presence, tense and charged—I want to see a film with this woman at its center.

Close to 20% of the presentations in the Forum are media-embargoed. This seems like a lot to me, and I’m perpetually puzzled by this. No, this is not an event open to the public, and one cannot even enter the premises without a Forum badge, but when you have a (Danish) producer and director get up on stage to say they can’t present or say anything and but please find them for a private meeting to learn more, this seems like mere theatricality to me. Who does this serve, and is it fair to other makers who’ve spent much time and expense to be part of this event? If your reputation is such that people are just supposed to assume you’re making something exciting and innovative (and dangerous, apparently), then why be given a presentation slot? I asked Gourd-Mercado about this. She responded: “The confidential projects had various degrees of confidentiality, and we had indeed one team that was very briefly on stage. These projects, however delicate in nature, still need the exposure, sometimes even more than others in order to get collaborators and funding. Another factor is the fact that these projects deal with a reality that changes all the time. A project can be open at the time it is chosen but might need another level of confidentiality once the dates of the presentation come around because the situation has evolved. We think it’s also important for have to conversations surrounding the safety of teams and subjects.”

Amongst the usual suspects of panelists, some new entities are entering the feature-length nonfiction funding landscape through in-house departments. These included IMAX (big screens!), represented by John Turner, SVP, Head of Documentaries; the Barbican Centre in London, which is looking for films with satellite potential for live performance, dance, music, theatre, etc.; Amazon MGM (!); and Bloomberg Philanthropies. As it was last year, Netflix was the main co-presenter of the Forum. 

As I’m wont to do in these reports, for the rest of this dreadfully long article I offer a deeply subjective shortlist of presentations and projects that moved me deeply—at least the ones I can share (with one exception). And with one exception, I do not have a personal relationship with any of the following people. Just to be clear, this shortlist stems from impressions and observations of director/producer teams who bothered to actually prepare adequately, having clearly rehearsed their presentations down to the millisecond in the time frame given. (Note that there were many others that did the same not mentioned here, so don’t take omission as denoting an unprofessional presentation.) This is not a quibble. Pitch training or no pitch training, it’s all well and good to encourage spectators to be kind and supportive and respectful in their actions towards those presenting, but it works both ways. Given the fact that filmmakers have been exceedingly lucky to have been chosen for a slot in an important forum, it’s always so surprising to me how some presenters literally look and act as if they’ve just wandered in off the street, been handed a microphone and commanded to speak as if this opportunity fell from the sky. Nerves, yes; public speaking, yikes. Presenters, tuck in your shirts and get familiar with what seven minutes feels like! (It goes fast.) Edit, pare down and give yourselves an opportunity to breathe and maybe actually enjoy such a rare and heady opportunity. Gourd-Mercado states: “We do not give pitch training specifically, as the FORUM is not a training program. Many fantastic ones exist. We do accompany teams and have meetings with them to help them be at their best, but ultimately it’s the teams’ responsibility. The perceived quality of pitches varies a lot from person to person. Industry representatives have very different opinions on what constitutes a good pitch. Just this year I was personally part of many conversations where people did not agree, so I think that there’s space for different types of presentations, and that authenticity goes a long way.”

Starting off the proceedings with the opening pitch were the founders of Montreal’s EyeSteelFilm: director Mila Aung-Thwin and producer Bob Moore. In Praise of Invasive Species was funded by their own distribution arm, personal investment, Canadian federal and provincial tax credits. The project is in the development stage, but that didn’t stop this dynamic duo from offering up a stellar presentation with live narration against the footage we watched. Delivered with equal amounts of humor and pathos, the film explores the practice of classifying certain species as invasive and in need of complete eradication, illustrating how, over many decades, pseudo-scientific concepts around such classifications continues to take a toll on the animal kingdom. But the filmmakers want to make a piece that argues for these species to be regarded as a natural response to a world reshaped by humans, adapting and creating new ecosystems that thrive under these altered circumstances, proving once again that non-humans are perhaps better survivalists no matter how much we try to destroy the natural world around us. A wide-ranging, funny, timely piece: good science on offer, lots of laughs at bad science and a CinemaScope-sized dreamscape.

Also dealing with (pseudo)scientific issues is American filmmaker Saelyx Finna with her début feature Under the Dream, the first film to chart the rise of the technologies poised to transform the multiverse of our dream lives—the “final frontier of the human mind.” Her company Dream Futures produces creative media projects about the emerging field and industry around dream tech, neurotechnologies that interface directly with our dreaming minds. Finna, who gave one of the most dynamic, charismatic and commanding presentations, has been a lay dream-tech researcher for the past couple of decades. At CPH:FORUM she offered a highly nuanced and complex précis on all the issues inherent in the hidden landscapes of our brains, which have the potential to become fair game for technological interventions—in other words, ways in which various entities can sell us stuff in our sleep. Exciting, potentially insidious and fascinating, this project in development is looking for robust financial, sales and distribution partners.

Children, families, beleaguered indigenous populations and other easily marginalized groups played a role in many projects, all deeply personal to makers creating films around infringed-upon human rights. Emmy-nominated Chinese filmmaker Dongnan Chen (Sound of Vision) focuses on Quinghua, a Yi ethnic teenager who sets out on a road trip with her two best friends to find a skirt for her menarche rite of passage. Chen and her partner, Chinese-Dutch producer Jia Zhao, presented a fluid and magical description of what they’re in the midst of making. At the heart of this piece is the collaboration between Chen and her young protagonists, all of whom have never seen a film before but are natural and curious in front of Chen’s camera lens. It is a film about self-discovery but also about the ways in which females in this minority culture must navigate the harsh realities of their low status. Merging reality and flights of imagination, it is an IDFA Bertha Fund recipient and also supported by DMZ, Tokyo Docs and the Xining First Documentary Lab. As announced at the pitch itself, Field of Vision also has come on board the project.

Finnish director Arthur Franck brought a fluid, highly articulate and very funny presence to the stage alongside his producer, Sandra Enkvist; both run Polygraf, a small production company based in Helsinki with a robust slate of films. Currently in development, Showtime in Helsinki has seed money from the Finnish Film Foundation, AVEK and the Finnish broadcaster, YLE—a trifecta win, because those three are the only game in town for national funding that could open up robust possibilities for co-production. Dancing on the edge of East and West, the project is an immersive all-archival study of “perhaps the most important, and simultaneously the most forgotten, Cold War event ever to take place”: In 1975, 35 world leaders gathered at Finlandia Hall for The Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe, including Gerald Ford, Leonid Brezhnev, Harold Wilson, Erich Honecker, Valery Giscard D’Estaing, Olof Palme and Josip Broz Tito. The serious core of this project centers around misinformation, propaganda and the death of diplomacy, using recently declassified transcripts of top-level conversations held behind closed doors, reimagined through AI Voice Simulation technology. The only current co-production partner at the time of the Forum is Sweden’s Story AB.

Director Angel Giovanni Hoyos and producer Jorge Andrés Botero presented Before the Fire, a story of a Mapuche Indian killed by two hitmen in a reclaimed community in Patagonia. The film, a Colombian-Argentinian-Spanish co-production currently in production, will follow the judicial process of that murder, as well as centering on the daily life of a small group of the Indigenous community that have been defending their land tirelessly, putting themselves in danger to recover territory sold out from under their ancestors, land conceded by the state to a timber producer. Set for an early 2026 release, the project focuses on persistent resistance, bravery on the front lines against gigantic foes and an undying dedication to the territory that is a rightful homeland. With protagonists who range in age from 10 to 50, the footage showed a struggle happening in so many places on our burning planet. One panelist mentioned that her network had shown many, many films already on the Mapuche. Are there moratoria on projects like this? What else is more vital, timely and well worth its own canon of cinematic documentation than beleaguered populations of ordinary citizens rising to fight against corrosive forces trying to annihilate them?

For three first features, each directing/producing team offered up exhilaratingly personal presentations and projects. Producer/director Lindsey Dryden, based in UK and Austin, Texas, presented The Listeners, an animated documentary about Switchboard, a 50-year-old 24-7 LGBT+ helpline run entirely by volunteers. The calls have always been anonymous, of course, but they’ve been recorded in paper logbooks with other notes. To protect the anonymity of all concerned, the filmmakers are turning to 2D animation to illustrate the story of a new volunteer as they begin training. Historically, most listeners throughout the years have been changed irrevocably by their encounters with the callers while fielding cries for help and requests for advice or just listening to someone desperate to share an intimate or life-changing story. (Yes, I welled up.) Catapult Film Fund in San Francisco is, thus far, the only confirmed funder for this project in development.

Director Regina Sobel is the former editor of the New York Times Op-Docs series and also works as an editor and writer. Tree People explores the inner lives of trees. Beginning with a memory of a beloved tree from her childhood that met a tragic end, Sobel’s burning question is how these ancient organisms can teach our own profligate species about survival and persistence in the face of unending abuse and threat of extinction. (Fun fact: Trees have been here long before us and will be here a long time after we’re gone!) Sobel is naturally poetic, philosophical and funny. (“I have tried tree-hugging. It was barky and felt very one-sided.”) As she leads us from mystery to mystery, ambiguity to ambiguity through stories about our relationships with our arboreal ancestors, what emerges is universal in its scope and expansive in its vast reaches of time and space. Together with her producers, Sarah Goodwin and Julia de Guzman, Sobel’s team represents The Wonder Collaborative, a division of the non-profit Science Communication Lab, where filmmakers and scientists join together to bring science stories to the big screen as well as experiment with science communication. Sobel was the one to utter the words “empathy machine” during her presentation, which seemed to cover just about everything I saw and heard that week, and thus was snatched for the title of this article. 

Co-directors Milton Guillén and Fiona Guy Hall are behind another feature début, My Skin and I. Produced by Zorana Musikic and May Odeh in a US-German-Nicaraguan collaboration, this project was marked “confidential,” with warnings everywhere from Forum moderators to the press department that projects marked thusly were not to be written or talked about publicly. But I’ve been around for a century and a half now (only film lover left alive) and have friends and people who believe in me as much as I believe in them because: trust and discretion. So, with Milo and Fio’s blessing, I will write about it without giving too much away. 

Films that navigate politics through art have been the watchword for Guillén as the brilliant programmer and scholar that he is. Hall is a multimedia artist who works in large-scale paperworks, sculpture and moving image. In their début feature, they attempt to explicate all of the damage that the Nicaraguan Guillén’s psyche, mind and heart have undergone through many refractions of history, memory and movement. A Nicaraguan father and son are exiles in a Western European country, the father adrift with feelings of rage and impotence—this is the documentary-ish part. Alongside that, My Skin and I means to consider the unrest, corruption and fear-based rule of a home country one can never return to with any notion of safety alongside the ways in which one becomes a ghostly presence when you live in the limbo state of exile. It also tells the story by proxy of the undying love of a son for a father he can clearly see is morally compromised, betrayed, abandoned and angry as hell. This project in development has robust confirmed funding from various entities including Harvard University, The University of Vermont, LEF and BAVC.

You can read about the various prizes on offer and the winners of those prizes from this year’s CPH:INDUSTRY program here. (Thank you, Nick Cunningham)

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