Five Documentaries to Change the Way You Think This Spring

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The Hotel, 2015(Film still)

As the Copenhagen's CPH:DOX draws to a close, we've selected some of the most exciting documentaries from this year's line-up – none of which are to be missed

Copenhagen: a city where everything is so calmly in-place and meticulously designed, from your hotel’s colour scheme to the barista’s haircut, that it can feel either soothingly evolved or eerily impossible, depending how easily you can repress your own mess to blend in. The Danish capital is home to the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival (or CPH:DOX as it’s commonly called). In keeping with this penchant for finesse, it’s hardly put a foot wrong since it launched 14 years ago, quickly building up a rep for style and innovation, and is often credited for helping the documentary form (once the preserve of talking heads and dry moralism) seem sexy. The festival favours cinema on the hybrid side – exciting experiments which blur the lines between reality and fiction, leaving “truth” a slippery, mirage-like notion.

That’s not to say there is a lack of political engagement in the films on offer – far from it. This year’s main DOX:AWARD winner, Feras Fayyad’s The Last Men in Aleppo, and the Audience Award recipient City of Ghosts by Matthew Heineman, were both urgent, powerful tributes to brave resistance work being done inside Syria by its embattled citizens (in the former, the White Helmets aid organisation and in the latter, citizen journalist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently). Below are more of our highlights.

The Hotel (2015)

Nothing says privileged indulgence quite like a visual catalogue of some of the world’s most noteworthy hotels, right? Well, not quite. Swedish director Kristian Petri’s documentary The Hotel muses on these buildings not as a tribute to jetset luxury but as a philosophical essay on what these makeshift homes-out-of-home have meant for people through the ages, and how their loss can sometimes echo not just personal attachment but the death of an era. To be sure, there’s aesthetic grandeur too. From the world’s oldest hotel (in Japan, once catering to samurai) to the Chateau Marmont, which regular Stellan Skarsgård says still exudes the old Los Angeles, we glide through rooms that have seen it all. A Norwegian war reporter talks about holing up in sprawling The Palestine in Baghdad under bombing, and Swedish actor Björn Johan Andrésen recalls his strange, unwelcome transition to teen star as the stunningly beautiful target of affection in Visconti’s Death in Venice, shot in 1971 in the Hotel des Bains. “You can’t step into the same river twice nor can you revisit the same city – it’s like outgrowing someone you love,” we’re told. But taking a peek on screen inside these edifices feels just fine.

Anohni: Disrupt Their Lives (2017)

Anohni, who gained fame with her band Antony and the Johnsons, has had a strong relationship with CPH:DOX over the years. She was there in 2011 with Turning, her beautiful collaboration with Charles Atlas documenting candid interviews on body image and identity with the 13 “remarkable women” who revolved on a stage platform on her concert tour. This year, she curated an entire programme, taking its title, Disrupt Their Lives, from LGBT activist and film historian Vito Russo. In its mix of popular and rare films, it spotlighted responses to traumas of recent history and embodiments of identities fully lived on their own terms. Highlights included Mr. O’s Book of the Dead (1973) by Nagano Chiaki which features Butoh, developed as “the dance of utter darkness” amid the turmoil of post-war Japan. Michael Kasino’s Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Martha P. Johnson (2012) is a video portrait of the titular transgender activist and West Village icon, rumoured to have thrown the first bottle at the police during Stonewall. Andy Warhol’s Normal Love (1964) captures a sensuous and hallucinatory picnic as staged by underground camp renegade Jack Smith. A compilation of footage and short films gathered the work of radical performance artist Kembra Pfahler, who champions Availabilism (making art from available materials) and who Anohni calls “the Jack Smith of my generation”. And much more.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It’s not a pretty story,” says Samuel L. Jackson. He’s reading from an unfinished book by piercingly eloquent writer and thinker James Baldwin, who saw in the racial oppression he experienced in his nation proof of white fear and spiritual hollowness. Raoul Peck’s vital documentary uses powerful reflections from this text as the backbone of its interrogation of race in the U.S. and the continuation of the struggles of the Civil Rights era. Rather than presenting us with a straightforward bio of Baldwin, who returned home from years living in Paris out of a sense of duty to more actively support those opposing segregation, it weaves together footage of the three friends he had been writing about: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. All had their own takes on activist methods – and all were assassinated in the 60s for their work and influence.

LoveTrue (2016)

Alma Har’el garnered much attention for her 2011 feature debut Bombay Beach, a lyrical portrait of the residents of a strange, down-and-out coastal Californian town. Dreamlike flights of imagination and broken dreams are also threaded through her latest film LoveTrue, which was bankrolled by Shia LeBeouf and questions the nature of real love through relationships now irretrievably bent out of shape. In keeping with Har’el’s strong background in music videos, the soundtrack (by Flying Lotus) is integral to the mood. Braving unguarded intimacy, it blends documentary with evocative segments of performance developed in psychodrama sessions. A surfer in Hawaii faces the revelation by his former wife that his son is not biologically his; a stripper in Alaska hopes for acceptance from the family of her disabled boyfriend; in New York the children of a husband whose philandering broke his marriage apart find solace in religious songs but feel the absence of their mother keenly. Its insights are soul-piercing, as it plumbs that dark area of casual, thoughtless cruelty inflicted by failed promises and expectations. But there’s uplift too – as we’re told: “The best people in the world come from broken homes and broken hearts.”

Gray House (2017)

Having an auteur genius for a parent must seem as much a curse as a blessing for any filmmaker wanting their work to stand alone on its own merits. But it’s more than fitting to mention that director Austin Lynch, whose debut feature Gray House had its world premiere in Copenhagen, is the son of that great cinematic Surrealist, David, given that they both share antennae attuned to the mysterious strangeness threaded through the landscape of modern America. Austin worked with Canadian artist Matthew Booth to create a beautifully atmospheric, shadowy and calmly meditative take on the confining and defining spaces of the U.S., shooting in remote nooks of Texas, North Dakota, Virginia, Oregon and California. From oil field workers enduring long separations from family to female prisoners, working-class individuals tacitly convey that the elusive land of opportunity might well be a parallel universe.