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Critic’s Notebook: CPH:DOX 2024

Two Strangers Trying Not to Kill Each Other

After a few days at CPH:DOX 2024, the main lesson was not to know what to expect: the range of documentary approaches felt vast, and each filmmaker’s commitment tended to be rewardingly total. The 21st edition of the springtime Copenhagen festival screened 200-plus titles across several venues, with personal favorites including the Empire Bio in Nørrebro and the sanctum-like cinematheque at the Danish Film Institute. And if one of the strongest recommendations I have for any festival is that I would have felt deprived of a complete picture of the year’s work if I hadn’t seen its selections, then indeed one world premiere after another at CPH:DOX fit the bill, capturing my imagination.

I’ll start with a pair of movies about love which incidentally illustrate the spectrum of techniques on display at the festival. You’ll definitely hear more about Two Strangers Trying Not to Kill Each Other, Jacob Perlmutter and Manon Ouimet’s stellar portrait of the relationship between photographer Joel Meyerowitz and writer Maggie Barrett. Their debut feature entailed several months of living with—sleeping in the same house as—the ageing couple, who were 84 and 75 at the time of filming, and very much still comprising a vibrant world unto themselves. Meyerowitz’s a whirligig of activity, a one-man industry, on the phone, taking meetings, overseeing the half-century-plus of his archives and shepherding new projects; Barrett writes, and writes, and puts up with him, amid a simmering tension about the sheer space he takes up, day to day but also as an artist with a bigger footprint. But they’re a lovey-dovey couple, airing disputes for the camera with an agreed-upon constructive candor. Perlmutter, who shoots in reliably intriguing compositions, and Ouimet set a new bar for this kind of in-house close-up with a nimbly maintained sense of now-ness, something that many documentaries achieve only in bursts. That’s partly a matter of deft editorial compression (kudos to Josh Mallalieu and Estephan Wagner) but also a narrative outlook that accepts life’s challenges on multiple fronts as the years dwindle—ageing in life and career, navigating both physical and emotional pain, psychological weather systems, the work of love and the different styles of loving. It’s quite a beautiful film, appropriately enough shot with Leica cameras, sensitive to light in interiors whether New York apartments or their house in Tuscany (a part of their life which seems to have inspired an unfortunately sniffy, cold-fish trade review of the film).

If anyone did find Two Strangers somehow too polished, CPH:DOX also offered the DIY-forward Eros, essentially a compendium of love stories, and another feat of assembly. The setting is a Brazilian love motel, where director Rachel Daisy Ellis marshals an array of mostly established couples to record themselves in the suites: hanging out, having sex (but not predominantly that), having dinner and snacks (more of that than expected), and just communing in what emerges as an immensely moving space of love, affection, intimacy, safety, openness. As in Two Strangers, and maybe even more so, this is a privileged look at the inner workings of relationships, without filters, sometimes in the form of conversations but in some cases as narrated and reflected upon by the half of the couple handling the camera. Despite appearances, the feel is not voyeuristic, precisely because it’s generated from a space of self-presentation and security. Ellis includes herself, alone, as a frame story—she was stood up on a motel date—and in a way to make herself more than simply an observer collecting the experiences of others. But just when you think the film might have run its course, she concludes with two episodes that more or less throw out the playbook and peer into lonelier, more tormented, though not hopeless outlooks on love. Ellis (who has produced films by Gabriel Mascaro and Tatiana Huezo) makes meaningful use of a milieu and a participatory mode of filmmaking that in the past has felt mired in gimmickry.

In the year of Black Box Diaries—which also screened at CPH:DOX—there was a noticeable cohort of films that drew energies from both documentary and journalistic traditions. Kix begins as a pavement-level tag-along with a skater kid—quite literally a kid, 8-year-old Sanyi—running free on the streets of Budapest, befriended by filmmaker/video artist Dávid Mikulán (later joined by co-director Bálint Révész). Then it’s as if the movie grows up with Sanyi, trading a kinetic kino-eye for bloc-grey Orban-poverty urban verite, tracking the boy through the pressures of growing up in his family’s 30-square-meter apartment and of having a penchant for raising hell. It’s a story of very hard-won maturation, with a sense of mortality close at hand. Apolena Rychlíková’s sobering Limits of Europe follows Czech journalist Saša Uhlová as she goes undercover as an undocumented migrant worker, first wrecking her hands at a produce processing plant in Germany and then being forced to cut corners housekeeping at a hotel in Ireland. Sacrificing months away from her family, she finds community alongside her fellow workers and stays grounded with a bluff attitude, but her voluminous voiceover annotates a perceptible sapping of lifeforce and the habitual abuses of management. Somewhat improbably, much or most of it was filmed with a camera hidden in her chunky spectacles, like old-school news exposés but at eye level. In Black Snow, writer/musician Alina Simone follows citizen journalist (and parent) Natalia Zubkova as she calls out pollution and corruption in her Siberian coal town through livestreamed investigations; her husband works for a mine but, almost entirely off screen, seems increasingly unhelpful. Russian government flunkies turn the screws on Zubkova with police harassment and smear campaigns, adhering to an evident strategy of suppressing any independent journalism. Simone is right there filming through thick and thin, so you witness Zubkova’s spark dimming under the attacks and the attrition, until she’s finally forced to emigrate for her own safety, bringing one of her daughters (who incidentally seems like a budding artist). It’s a vital snapshot from Russia’s hinterlands, demonstrating the bravery necessary to make even the elementary public observation that coal befouls the environment, and showing the mindboggling surveillance and enforcement apparatus maintained to extinguish any dissent from either government policy or crony capitalism.

In Once Upon a Time in a Forest, young Finnish eco-activists Ida and Minka resist the large-scale logging of their country’s native forests by blocking roads, protesting at corporate offices, and, in one pricelessly cordial sequence, simply telling a lone lumberjack that he can take the day off because they’re in the middle of a protest. Partnering with a cinematographer from blue-chip nature docs, director Virpi Suutari summons the ethereal beauty of a forest—and of being in a forest, strolling, or draped across branches, or free-diving in lagoons—and sets out to show the activists’ steely nerve and remarkable good cheer. The government tactics run from imprisonment to escalating fines, though the state climate seems perhaps a little more forgiving compared to armed crackdowns in the United States and elsewhere. An underground network of a different sort is the subject of Sissel Morell Dargis’s Balomania, a rough-and-ready, graffiti-inflected look at illegal balloon crews in Brazil who craft, assemble, and launch their airships (complete with huge banners and other accouterments) while avoiding the prying eyes of law enforcement. Though I sheepishly admit to expecting a gorgeous tour of floating canvases, Dargis zeroes in on one wide-eyed baloeiro who only seems to live in full when pursuing his passion, in a portrait of total dedication to art (though he does also dote on his son during custody visits). We do glimpse grand bannered balloons, featuring kitschy visages like that of an oh-mouthed Pavarotti—the competing squads seem modeled on carnival crews—as well as one fiery disaster with all the spectacular folly of a scene from The Prestige.

A few films examined motherhood from different angles. In Motherboard, Victoria Mapplebeck films her son over 20 years, showing both their sweetly close relationship and the growth involved in dealing with the absence of his father (who more or less fled the country after confirming his paternity). And in The Son and the Moon, Roja Pakari (co-directing with Emilie Adelina Monies) draws a shattering connection between dual losses looming in her life. Fleeing Iran as a child with her family, she harbors grief and angst over a culture she left behind, and her life with her Danish-born husband is strained by a diagnosis of incurable bone marrow cancer. Her condition keeps her separated from her young son for long stretches, making her feel that she’s also losing the chance to pass along a heritage that she yearns to hold onto. Coincidentally made in Iran, Atiye Zare Arandi’s Grand Me centers on a 9-year-old Iranian girl who gets fed up with her manipulative absentee father and her well-meaning but confusing mother, who are separated. Outspoken Melina—who’s absolutely unsparing to her mother in riveting dashboard-cam car scenes—lives with her lovely grandparents and agitates for a change in custody. Few documentaries I’ve seen have captured the particular strandedness felt by someone like Melina who’s young and perceptive yet not fully empowered. (She’s also, it’s casually revealed, midway through creating a series of marvelous cartoon portraits.) Complete with journal video entries in which Melina muses to camera, the film baffles as to the circumstances of its making, until you learn that Arandi is Melina’s aunt, which in a way makes the whole endeavor even more touching.

Let’s end with the top, namely, competition winner The Flats, Alessandra Celesia’s harrowing postmortem on the Troubles in Belfast, which focuses on a weather-beaten survivor in a housing estate who keeps replaying the murders and other agonies of his 1970s childhood. It’s a kaleidoscopic trauma film—mixing different forms of reenactment, psychotherapeutic interviews, chatty jaunts with neighbors, and everything in between—that shows the pain didn’t stop with the dotted line of a treaty agreement. And it’s an award win that I absolutely applaud, since its fearless commitment to whatever truths its formal and emotional exploration yield felt emblematic of the best that I saw at CPH:DOX.

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