EDITORIAL. If you don't go to extremes, why even go? the Danish COBRA artist Asger Jorn once said. His words naturally spring to mind when looking at the current crop of Danish documentaries. They go to extremes. They have guts and they take chances – artistically, thematically and personally.
A prime example is journalist and master of role-playing Mads Brügger. The cover of this magazine shows him dancing with a group of plastered Pygmies celebrating his plan to build a match factory in their village. Elsewhere in the magazine, a critic asks, "Is it okay for Brügger to travel in an African country as a diplomat, while filming his experiences as a documentarian and a reporter?" And the answer is, "Of course not! That's why 'The Ambassador' hits home so hard." And perhaps that's why it was picked to open the world's most important documentary film festival.
There is no doubt that "The Ambassador" is out to provoke and stir debate – about the film's journalistic methods and handling of its characters.
But there is also no doubt that Brügger, putting himself on the line, is trying to tell a different truth about North and South, and the extent of our compassion, than the one presented to us in yet another well-intentioned primetime fundraising show. That's where his method is vindicated.
"The Ambassador" is supported by New Danish Screen, the talent development subsidy scheme whose purpose includes inspiring innovation of cinematic language and storytelling. Investigation and experimentation are encouraged to keep cinematic aesthetics alive and in motion. Talents get a chance to see if their offbeat ideas will translate to the big and small screens.
The courage to go to extremes can be manifested in a multitude of ways. The Danish documentaries at IDFA are products of filmmakers having the energy, skill and courage to go all the way.
Energy to track their characters at moments when life’s drama comes to a head – in the arena of big politics or in the most intimate of relationships. The skill to find the cinematic device that is just right for resolving the story. And the courage to insist on a personal approach and a personal artistic expression.
Good documentaries need skilled filmmakers, an open-minded audience – and a broad framework. Here I'm thinking of the film-policy framework. A system that promotes innovation and focuses on talent development. A system that is willing to take risks. And, of course, it takes money.
Denmark's new Film Agreement has improved the opportunities for funding the development and production of documentary films in critical ways. Individual films really do have a better framework now. This is happening amidst a global financial crisis. It's happening because of, and out of respect for, the high artistic quality contributed by Danish documentarians in recent years. And with it comes an obligation. An obligation to keep going to extremes. Otherwise, why even go?