Spring ’17: CPH/VNO/etc

Published on: March 23rd, 2017

Thursday, 23rd March
Arrivederci Copenhagen, bonjour Vilnius. Short hop of 70 minutes (I am still on with reading The Sympathizer) took me from Denmark to Lithuania, landing amid mid-afternoon spring sunshine. Trying to cut down on flying this year after clocking up no fewer than 66 flights last year — by now I must have the carbon footprint of a sasquatch. Made my way from airport to hotel in the city centre and thence — after a quick dinner at a restaurant which offered a “themed” film-festival menu (including two dishes named after Joan Crawford, and one after Martin Landau) — to the multiplex to catch the 6.30 showing of Radu Jude’s Scarred Hearts. Keen to catch Jude’s follow-up to the outstanding Aferim!, I arrived at the cinema 20 minutes ahead of time… or so I thought, until sickeningly realising that Lithuanian time is currently one hour later than Danish time, meaning I was in fact 40 minutes too late. Gnnnnnnnn…..
I scrambled for a Plan B and ended up watching Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, a sprawling 163-minuter which managed to just about sustain interest through the meanderings of its episodic, breezily thin plot, and (crucially for a long picture) ended on a quietly euphoric high. I couldn’t abide Arnold’s feature debut Red Road (wasn’t surprised to learn she’d never even set foot in Scotland before production started) but this was another solid 7/10 effort after Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights, with a star-making turn from Elvis Presley’s tough-faced grand-daughter Riley Keough.
Ambled back from cinema to hotel in the pre-midnight dark, through a city I had only visited once before — in rainy late November 2015, when I shot Vilniu Detroit (world-premiering tomorrow here) in two hours on my final morning. Feels odd after 16+ years of foreign film-festivals to be finally attending one primarily as a film-maker. But I could get used to it…

Wednesday, 22nd March
Last full day at CPH DOX, and a little lighter than the previous ones film-wise — partly because a chunk of mid-afternoon was taken up with interviewing Austin Lynch and Matthew Booth, whose docu-fiction hybrid (five sections, two of which are straight documentary, three of which are not) Gray House world-premiered in the main competition. Lynch is the son of David Lynch (and Mary Fisk, so is also therefore the nephew of Sissy Spacek); Booth has a certain renown in the art-world, mainly through photography; the interview looks like it will run on the website of Little White Lies, once I have gotten over the hurdle of transcribing the half-hour discussion which I recorded on an old-school dictaphone. Lots of coughings and splutterings from yours truly on the audio, no doubt, as my heavy cold — a pain in the arse at any time, especially bothersome at a foreign film-festival — is only slowly alleviating.
Cheap(ish) but filling spaghetti bolognese from a basement place near Nørreport station — stark red neon of the station sign (Copenhagen remains a neon-lovers’ delight) against the deep blue of the late-dusk sky — sustained me (on the feed-a-cold principle) through the evening’s films: James N. Kienitz Wilkins’ Common Carrier, a (genuinely) experimental semi-fiction portrait of Brooklyn artists (every image involving superimposition), and finally Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, the classic 1956 short which somehow manages to do full justice to the horror of the Nazi death-camps in just 32 minutes.
Normally a back row, far-corner denizen, I sat in the middle of the front row for this one — shown on 35mm as part of a programme selected by Anohni. In fact, it was a double-bill, with the Resnais followed (rather crazily) by a rarely-screened Japanese picture from 1973, Mr O’s Book of the Dead by cult auteur Nagano Chiaki. I could grasp the midnight-movie appeal but soon tired of the wacky theatrical cavortings in a quarry and a piggery, and bailed after 20 minutes or so.
Back at hotel, one eye on the rolling TV news of the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack (5 dead: attacker, cop, 3 civilians) I compiled a rough first set of odds for this year’s Palme d’Or: a hazardous enterprise several weeks before the lineup is announced, but my reckonings put Yorgos Lanthimos, Michael Haneke (bidding for an unprecedented three-in-a-row hat-trick), Todd Haynes, Lucrecia Martel and Sergei Loznitsa out in front. Within minutes a reader pointed out that Martel was unlikely to be in competition since one of her film’s main producers, Pedro Almodovar, is the president of the jury…. Eventually made it to bed at 1.30am, and slept nicely deep via a series of gruellingly wacky dreams.


Tuesday 21st March
I got fooled by the whole “first day of Spring” stuff here in Copenhagen: saw the morning sunshine and went out in trainers and without umbrella — only (still suffering my heavy, ill-timed cold) to get caught in a downpour that blew up out of nowhere around 1.45pm. I was scuttling towards to the Dagmar Cinema (formerly run by Carl Th. Dreyer no less — his bust [above] occupies a shadowy spot in the lobby) to see Kristoffer Borgli’s DRIB and made it just in time. Got the last ticket, in fact — front row for larkish, Los Angeles-set satire about a fictional energy-drink campaign that played well with the 20-something-dominated.
Layers of artifice and post-modernism pile up to amusing if ultimately somewhat so-whattish effect. Film is in no way a documentary, despite its presence at the “Copenhagen International Documentary Festival.” Programmers here love to challenge hidebound categorisations by programming quasi-docs, hybrids and fiction films at the festival, including in the top competition where winners have included the likes of Trash Humpers and Le Quattro Volte. All good sport, unless you happen to be a maker of a “proper” documentary whose film didn’t make the lineup, or which make the competition but lost out on the trophy to a non-doc.
And are we really so short of “proper” documentaries that documentary film-festivals have to pad out their slates with such unambiguously fictional (scripted, acted) films? OK, DRIB has some vague “documentary” elements and feature re-enactments of stuff that (supposedly) really happened, but why not go the whole hog and just show the likes of Moonlight? FIDMarseille eventually just changed its name and dropped “documentaire” in favour of “film” — a bit tricky for CPH DOX to do likewise.
In other news, my native country — the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland — announced that Article 50 will be triggered at the end of this month, on March the 29th (birthday of my dad and my brother!). I voted against Brexit, but taking the wider view — looking at what is best for the whole of Europe (and therefore the world) rather than just one country, maybe it’s for the best. I suspect the UK will be in for a long, tough spell, but am optimistic that the continent will be better off without us. And how can you leave a club which you never actually joined? No Euro, no Schengen — we always had one foot out of the door anyway. A clean amputation arguably preferable to painfully awkward half-measures.

finale of Siem?

Monday 20th March
At film-festivals, days can blur into each other; my 2nd at CPH DOX was in some ways a carbon-copy of the first: coping with sneezy, coughy cold while navigating chilly, rain-swept streets between screenings, the first of which (Scottish non-doc Eglantine) I bailed on after half an hour.
But then mattters looked up: second film was best non-short so far, namely Eva Mulvad’s A Modern Man, a world-premiere for the festival that will find plenty of takers further around the circuit. Intimate profile of 007-handsome star violinist Charlie Siem [above], son of a filthy-rich Norwegian industrialist and who, in-between fiddle antics models for Armani, Boss, etc, jets around the world’s glamour spots.
But, as he turns 30, wor Charlie is afflicted by a mild case of the existential jitters — exacerbated by his mysteriously inert love-life and lack of chums. Director makes no attempt to reinvent any documentary wheels here, but benefits from genial protagonist’s fumbling attempts at self-awareness and strikes proper balance between straight-faced respect and sly satire (see also 2015’s underappreciated mid-length French equivalent, Business Club.) MVP is, I suspect, Adam Nielsen — who has edited many of the better Danish productions of recent years and gives graceful 90-minute shape to what must have been a mass of worthwhile footage.
Monday’s second highlight was pre-midnight trip to the fabled Andy’s Bar in company of my US-born, Norway-based pal Martha Otte (head of Tromsø Film Festival up in the Arctic), where we had to move tables to avoid the attentions of a largely incoherent, vaguely pestish middle-aged drunk who at one point handed us a (wrapped) Snickers bar. The mumbling denizen thankfully didn’t stop Martha from endorsing my glowing build-up of the nicely unreconstructed upstairs quasi-dive, whose doors remain open till at least 5am every night. Civilisation!


Sunday 19th March
Midnight in Copenhagen, again. Rotten night: wet, chilly, snowy-sleety, perfect accompaniment to a heavyish cold which started making itself felt yesterday and blew up today into an energy-sapping pain in the backside. Just what I needed for a full, a five-programme day, my first at this year’s CPH DOX. I shall glide over Unrest (bailed after 30min), acknowledge that Death of a Child does what it sets out to do, note that I made it to the end of Stay Behind (despite it losing its way around the halfway mark) and was not unmoved by Waiting For The Sun… all four of them “embellished” with lily-gilding scores that have become the grim hallmark of the non-cinematic documentaries in the 2010s, complete with tinkling piano for the sadder moments. Yep, all four.
Day was salvaged at the eleventh hour with a 52-minute of (students´?) shorts shown under the banner Danish Artists’ Film / Video. Denmark is not exactly a hotbed of experimental cinema these days, shall we say, so the first two in the programme came as a pleasant surprise: Arrábida – There is Only One Earth by Tinne Zenner (15 min), a multi-textured survey of a remote, forest-ringed concrete factory in Portugal, shot and shown on 16mm and, even better, Air (VW Golf III) [above] by the gloriously-monikered Kåre Leander Ringling Frang, which takes just silent 131 seconds to chronicle — in elliptical fashion, showing only the catastrophic impacts as it is dropped repeatedly on the ground from what we deduce must be a considerable height, the scrap-yard destruction of the eponymous banger. The Zenner oddity reminded me strongly of Dania Reymond’s beguilingly weird Greenland Unrealised (2013), the Frang (even more so) of Kevin Jerome Everson’s Century (2012), though the likelihood of these being direct influences seems a longshot.
Speaking of longshots, my fiver on Subway Dancer went astray this afternoon as the he could only finish sixth (of nine) behind easy winner Cloth of Stars, going off at 18-1. I am watching the pennies here in the often-extortionate Copenhagen, where a bowl of soup (plus miniature bread-bun) and a glass of tap water cost me a total of 95 kroner (12 for the water!), i.e. £11 or €12.75 or $13.75. Bargains are thin on the ground, but they do exist: I picked up a 750g carton of mandarins from Irma mini-supermarket for just 10 kroner this afternoon, which helped sustain alertness levels through afternoon and evening, not to mention adding a little citrus fragrance to the screening-rooms.

Subway Dancer

Saturday 18th March
Midnight in Copenhagen; checked into hotel half an hour ago and am heading soon to bed, despite having toyed with visiting my favourite bar in the city — Andy’s, a decidedly old-school upstairs joint which I was delighted to realise is literally just around the corner from where I’m staying.
Been a long day, travelling since 2.30 this afternoon: bus to Sunderland city centre (20+ minutes late!), Metro to Newcastle Airport (reading Thanh Viet Thanh Nguyen’s [inexplicably] Pulitzer-winning The Sympathizer), then flights from Newcastle (eerily deserted) to Amsterdam (wet) to Copenhagen (chilly).
I’m here as a press guest of CPH DOX, Denmark’s leading documentary-oriented film festival: first leg of a four-festival jaunt that will next include Vilnius (where I will premiere my 5-minute short Vilniu Detroit), Saas-Fee in the Swiss Alps (where I’m on the press jury), then Paris for Europe Autour de l’Europe, a lengthy, auteur-focused event where I’m on the jury deciding the promisingly-named ‘Prix Sauvage.’
Another factor against Andy’s: I had quite enough to drink yesterday, a deadly/fortuitous combination of St Patrick’s Day and the Cheltenham Gold Cup (big race won by Irish raider Sizing John), which saw me in various Newcastle pubs with various pals from 3.15 to 11pm, though “sensible” drinking was conducted and I made sure to wolf down a large and glorious kebab mid-evening (in company of Michael Pattison), thus meaning I could get stuff done today instead of shambling about like a zombie.
After checking my weight on the scales for the first time in a couple of months (85.2kg aka 188lb aka 13st6lb [I am 6ft0.5in and turned 46 thirteen days ago]) I packed, booked a Rome>Vienna flight for next month, planned a rough CPH DOX schedule, cycled into Sunderland town centre (damp on the way, raining on the way back) to pay a couple of bills, register my cashpoint card to use abroad, and also stick a fiver on Subway Dancer [above] in tomorrow’s big race, the Prix Exbury at Saint-Cloud, on my hunch that (because of his “unfashionable” connections) he may oblige at generous odds. My kind of bet.