Going to the Dogme

Zentropa Real and director Lars von Trier breed Dogumentarism
November 1, 2002

The media savvy of documentary audiences today is unprecedented. Viewers digest a perfect quote or a tidy ending with a level of skepticism once reserved for reports such as Iraq’s claim last month that President Saddam Hussein was elected to another seven-year term with 100% of the vote.

‘We as the audience aren’t sure if what we’re seeing is true, because we know what we’re seeing has been manipulated,’ says Carsten Holst, producer and editor-in-chief of Zentropa Real, the Hvidovre, Denmark-based doc arm of director Lars von Trier’s prodco, Zentropa Productions. Viewers understand that a film is being put together by an individual and, therefore, reflects a specific perspective, says Holst. ‘But,’ he continues, ‘[the audience] doesn’t know by how much they are being manipulated, and that they don’t like.’

To correct the perceptional balance of power that exists between viewer and filmmaker, von Trier recently drafted nine rules (see sidebar) designed to eliminate common tricks of the doc trade that contribute to the manipulation of reality. To put the rules into action, Zentropa Real recruited six Scandinavian directors to each produce a one-hour doc. The resulting films will be known as Dogumentaries, a label that nods at von Trier’s Dogme 95 manifesto, which targeted fiction film directors.

Dogumentarism is not single-minded in its objectives, however. The rules are also meant to act as a creative muse to documentary filmmakers. ‘When you can’t use voice-over and things like that, you have to invent new ways of telling your story,’ says Holst. ‘The directors are quite skilled people and they make their living being creative, so they solve it. What they find out is they have more creative doors in their mind than they thought.’

The six Scandinavian Dogumentarists include Danish directors Klaus Birch, directing The Crownprince; Sami Saif, with Desert Boy; Michael Klint, filming Vietnam; and Bente Milton, whose project is yet to be decided. Paal Hollender, from Sweden, is presenting Vacation – The United States of Afghanistan, and Margreth Olin, of Norway, is doing a project currently in development.

The filmmakers are all established doc-makers and represent a range of factual genres, ensuring the resulting films show how different types of directors can work under the rules. Explains Holst, ‘To finance a project as big as this one, we had to have directors who were first of all interested in the rules, and that had a level of experience that allowed us and the investors to know we would get a program we could show. Also, with known directors whose previous films are familiar, it’s interesting to see what happens when they work under these rules. There are more aspects to it if you have more skilled filmmakers.’

Nordic broadcasters NRK of Norway, SVT in Sweden, DR in Denmark, and Canal+ Scandinavia are coproducing the ‘dogus’, which are being shot digitally and carry a budget of about 105,000 euros (US$103,000) each. Holst estimates the films will begin airing in 2004. Other financiers include the Danish Film Institute, the Norwegian Film Fund, and the Swedish Film Institute, as well as the Nordic Film and TV Fund.

‘We wanted enough films to make this a brand,’ says Holst. ‘If you have six or eight docs, [the broadcasters] can brand them on the screen, so that they can broadcast one a week for six or eight weeks. It’s a much better way of showing the variety of the directors, instead of having one or two now, and one or two in six months. The impact will be much greater if you do a mini-series.’

Neither von Trier nor Holst suggests that all docs should be produced as dogumentaries. ‘That would be terrible,’ says Holst. ‘It could be great if [the rules] generated a genuine interest around the world,’ he adds. ‘But, they have to be good films. I truly believe that if the films are as good as they seem, we have something on our hands that will have a positive impact on documentaries everywhere.’

Indeed, the Dogumentary brand has already extended to the U.K. Holst mentioned the method to Jess Search, Channel 4′s head of independent film and video, during an unrelated program pitch, and she immediately agreed to coproduce two dogumentaries. The chosen directors – Paul Wilmshurst, with Rewind the Summer, and Joe Bullman, with England is Mine – presented their films at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival in October. The films will be broadcast by C4 before the end of the year.

Bullman’s dogu centers on a classic English soccer thug. The film originated with Bullman’s desire to show what it’s really like to attend the World Cup, partly in reaction to the amount of attention the media lavishes on English soccer hooligans. The director found working under the rules challenging, but says they ultimately helped him capture a deeply personal portrait of his subject. ‘A number of rules they laid down are really good and people should observe them in general,’ says Bullman. ‘Whenever you can avoid commentary or narration, you should [rule no. 6]. At one point there was a debate within Channel 4, because some people were saying, ‘We really need your perspective on this guy.’ But, if you don’t get that from the film, it isn’t successful anyway.’

Bullman has also embraced rule no. 4, which stipulates that every time an edit is made, the film must cut or fade to black. ‘I thought that was going to be really crap,’ he explains. ‘In the shooting, I tried to look for shots that would sustain over a period of time, so I wouldn’t need to cut. But, I think it looks great. It’s not even that it’s more honest – I actually think that stylistically, it looks better. It sounds jarring and it looks jarring in the first few minutes of watching the film, but it’s so much better than shooting cheesy cut-aways, like when someone is crying and you shoot a shot of their hands wringing. Those things are desperate, and I think they’re antique in style.’

Holst indicates a further spread of Dogumentarism, revealing that Zentropa Real is discussing the concept with production companies in Germany, France, Belgium and the U.S. He also notes that all eight films are financed to be released on DVD, and will be backed by substantial marketing campaigns.

The Dogu Code of Conduct:

By Lars von Trier

1. All the locations in the film must be revealed. (This is to be done by text being inserted in the image. This constitutes an exception of rule number five. All the text must be legible.)

2. The beginning of the film must outline the goals and ideas of the director. (This must be shown to the film’s ‘actors’ and technicians before filming begins.)

3. The end of the film must consist of two minutes of free speaking time by the film’s ‘victim’. This ‘victim’ alone shall advise regarding the content and must approve this part of the finished film. If there is no opposition by any of the collaborators, there will be no ‘victim’ or ‘victims’. To explain this, there will be text inserted at the end of the film.

4. All clips must be marked with six to 12 frames black. (Unless they are a clip in real time, that is a direct clip in a multi-camera filming situation.)

5. Manipulation of the sound and/or images must not take place. Filtering, creative lighting and/or optical effects are strictly forbidden.

6. The sound must never be produced exclusive of the original filming or vice versa. That is, extra soundtracks like music or dialogue must not be mixed in later.

7. Reconstruction of the concept or the directing of the actors is not acceptable. Adding elements as with scenography are forbidden.

8. All use of hidden cameras is forbidden.

9. There must never be used archived images or footage that has been produced for other programs.

© 2001, Zentropa Real ApS

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.