Lauren Wissot, amerikansk journalist og kritiker ved blandt andet Filmmaker Magazine og Documentary Magazine, har nysgerrigt fulgt og begejstret skrevet om dansk dokumentar i næsten et årti.
Wissot var i år indbudt til branchemødet DOKDAG, hvor temaet kredsede om dokumentarfilms evne til at påvirke mennesker og fællesskaber.
Som en af to kritikere – med Informations kulturredaktør Katrine Hornstrup Yde som den anden – havde Filminstituttet inviteret hende til at give sit bud på, hvordan landskabet tegner sig i dansk dokumentarfilm anno 2019.
Fra sit amerikanske perspektiv havde Wissot en opfordring med til de danske dokumentarister: Find de historier, som ingen andre kan fortælle bedre end jer.
Her foreslog hun tre udfordringer som "katalysator" for de unikke, lokale fortællinger – tre spørgsmål, som instruktørerne skal stille sig selv:
- Er dette en historie, som ingen andre i verden kan fortælle?
- Er jeg den rette instruktør til at fortælle denne historie?
- Og vil det være oplagt at fortælle historien i et andet format end film?
Vi bringer her Lauren Wissots oplæg i sin fulde længde:
Think Locally Rather Than React Globally: A Manifesto for 21st Century Doc-Making
"The newly rich are doing well, but we old rich are the new poor." So sayeth the 50-something Anne Mette, in just one of her many Oscar Wilde-like bon mots. The younger half of the female Danish duo at the center of Eva Mulvad's extraordinary documentary 'The Good Life', Anne Mette and her elderly mum have downsized from their vast villa and now reside in a tiny apartment in Portugal on income from a single pension.
And while the parallels of Mulvad's film to the Maysles' classic 'Grey Gardens' are obvious in its portrait of a somewhat dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, and the fact that these once wealthy women are now living in poverty (if not exactly squalor), what struck me most was the biggest difference between the two docs. Unlike with Little Edie and Big Edie, no one can accuse either the unabashedly eccentric Anne Mette or her stoic mother of one ounce of insanity. Which is what makes 'The Good Life' all the more heartbreaking. These strong-willed dames whose banter plays like a vaudeville act not only aren't in denial, they are painfully aware of all that they've lost.
That was my assessment of 'The Good Life' when, nearly a decade ago, I first got an inkling that a nonfiction film scene was ripening in the state of Denmark. That same year I also encountered Michael Madsen’s 'Into Eternity' – a visually and sonically stunning, existential leap into the very future of civilization via Finland's nuclear waste storage facility, Onkalo. I was particularly taken with how little it resembled a documentary. Images from 'Lord of the Rings' and '2001: A Space Odyssey' danced in my head as I tried to wrap my brain around the overwhelming concept of this enormous underground burial chamber that will continue to be under construction until the 22nd century, that is to be built to last for 100,000 years.
What these two polar opposite films have in common, besides being instant cinematic nonfiction classics, is that they are both local (in essence, Nordic) stories that contain universal touchstones (through the 'Grey Gardens' parallel and sci-fi aspect, respectively). In other words, only Scandinavian filmmakers could have found – let alone tackled – these specific stories.
They are prime examples of "thinking locally rather than reacting globally." These are not the stories we tell, the ones making headlines. After all, crises – political, refugee and otherwise – are what get the tweets. And yet these films do in fact leave us pondering those crises – economic, environmental – just through a more abstract and deeper lens.
And while the Scandinavian film scene continues to excite me, filmmakers around the world are quickly catching up. Where once I would have thrilled to get a glimpse of the goings-on in a far-flung war zone through a Danish lens, today equally talented native filmmakers are providing me with a striking insider’s take from those frontlines. In recent years, as Danish documentarians teach me more and more about the world around me, I learn less and less about the Nordic region itself. I know a lot about patriarchal systems in developing countries. I know next to nothing about sexual harassment at Zentropa. I'd love to learn more. Unfortunately, important local stories are often sacrificed when filmmakers export their gaze.
Which leads me to propose a set of challenges I've thought up for Danish filmmakers – a catalyst, I hope, to get us back to basics like eccentric dames and nuclear waste. The stories that need you most.
Ask yourself, Is this a story that no one else in the world is telling?
Most filmmakers – heck, human beings – want their actions to have an impact on the world, be it contributing to human rights or cinematic artistry. "How can I make a difference?" one often wonders. That answer, I assure you, will not be found on the front pages of The New York Times.
In other words, if everyone is talking about the latest "issue of the day," then they are not talking about something else of equal import. Humans are imbued with a natural herd mentality that filmmakers have a duty to forever fight against – now more than ever. As local news outlets fold, as we travel across the internet to gather only with our likeminded tribes, we lose the close and personal. We forget that some of the most fascinating stories can be found by simply looking up from our phones and right outside the door.
This is where your voice is needed. Seek out those tales that no one else is telling and shine a spotlight on them. Stop adding to the conversation. Start a new one.
Am I the filmmaker who needs to tell it?
I'll never forget Chicago homeboy Steve James discussing 'America to Me' (amerikansk dokumentarserie, red.) at last year’s IDFA. He said something quite striking – that he, in fact, initially didn’t want to direct the series. He thought it should be crafted by a person of color – but struggled to find anyone local to take on the project.
Of course, not wanting to give up on this story about racial and educational inequity at Chicago’s Oak Park and River Forest High School (that no one else in the world was telling), he settled on enlisting three other filmmakers – one African-American, one Asian-American and one white woman – to share in the directing duties. James never thought he was the filmmaker who needed to bring this tale to the small screen. The choice was simply either he got involved or the story did not get told.
James's approach is something I would urge all Danish documentarians to employ when considering a project: Remove ego from the equation. Be self-reflective enough to ask yourself, honestly, if you specifically are the director who needs to be behind the lens. Why you and no one else? What would best serve the film?
Only if the answer is truly, "I'm the one who has to bring this to fruition," then proceed. Never take on a project because you want to – do it because you have to.
Is this even a film?
Lest we forget, the "golden age" of doc-making now encompasses multiple new mediums – most notably audio docs, docu-series and VR. The 90-minute feature is no longer the holy grail.
Indeed, I would argue that works as disparate as Errol Morris’s Netflix series 'Wormwood', the second season of American Public Media’s 'In the Dark' podcast (which, like Morris’s 'The Thin Blue Line' decades ago, tackled a wrongful conviction case – that led all the way to a US Supreme Court ruling just this year), and the Danish XR artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen's virtual reality experience 'Re:Animated', which brought tears to this jaded critic's eyes, are all every bit as powerful as any feature film.
In other words, why limit yourself when there's a whole wide world of new formats out there to explore? Never be afraid to stretch those filmmaking muscles well outside of the frame.
In closing, as an American I'd be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the important role your country has played on our side of the cinematic nonfiction pond. As my astute editor at Documentary Magazine reminded me, Denmark has often served as a lifeline for American documentary filmmaking in recent years. Nonfiction gamechangers such as Yance Ford and Josh Oppenheimer, wildly diverse in both background and style, have found critical support in Denmark for telling the stories that no one else is telling. And for that we should all be profoundly grateful.