Dogma’s bark still bites

Ten years on, the movement is finding new converts

Ten years ago in March, Lars von Trier livened up a Paris conference by hurling 500 copies of a pamphlet labeled “Dogma 95” into the auditorium. His aim was twofold: to draw attention to himself, and to remove decadence and illusion from European cinema.

The first certainly worked: love him or loathe him, von Trier has become an inescapable presence at Cannes. But has the manifesto really affected cinematic aesthetics?

In Denmark, the answer is yes, with some qualification. “Everything Lars does has an element of stunt about it. But, in the past 10 years, Danish films have attracted more international attention than you’d expect for such a small country,” says Peter Schepelern, a professor at Copenhagen U. and the movement’s unofficial historian.

With Dogma, suggests Schepelern, von Trier and Co. established rules to stop themselves from doing “what was too easy for them.”

Thomas Vinterberg, the other signatory of the original document, agrees. “Lars and I just sat down and thought, ‘What do we normally do? Those things we have to forbid.’ It was a relief.”

Von Trier’s producing partner, Peter Aalbæk Jensen, who had just beefed up Zentropa’s facilities when the manifesto came out, thought the timing was lousy. “I was sure it was a very bad idea,” he chuckles. “Not only was Dogma a shitty name for a brand, Lars and I had just bought a lot of lighting equipment and studios.”

Aalbæk Jensen finally admitted they were on to something, not so much at Cannes — where the first two Dogma films, “Festen” and “The Idiots,” premiered three years later, in 1998 — but in Berlin the following February. “Cannes was OK,” he says. “But then, in Berlin, we really sold ‘Mifune’ for big money. Mind you, I think the buyers went a little bananas.”

Critics went a bit crazy, too — at first. Says British writer Jonathan Romney: “It’s disappointing that, given how little prescriptive the original rules were about style, a Dogma ‘look’ and ‘feel’ seemed to crystallize.” A director of one of the more recent Dogma titles puts it more succinctly: “shitty image, shitty sound.”

The Dogma movement aimed to purify filmmaking with its Vow of Chastity rules: No soundstages or special lighting, it was hand-held cameras and live sound. “My supreme goal,” signatories had to agree, “is to find the truth in my characters and settings.”

That, at least, still echoes today, as a trickle of new filmmakers sign up (one can do so online at www.dogme95.dk), not just from Denmark, but from a dozen other countries, including the U.S. (from which a third of the 38 “official” Dogma films have come). “It’s amazingly liberating,” claims Brit director Jan Dunn, whose new film “Gypo,” (aka “Dogma No. 37”) will screen at the Cannes market.

Dunn’s film is about the impact a young asylum-seeker has on a family in Kent, on England’s south coast.

“Dogma suits the contentious material and the approach,” says Dunn. “I could have done it without Dogma, but it wouldn’t have been as raw.”

Significantly, none of the original Danish signatories has done it Dogma-style a second time. “It’s like a cure,” says Schepelern. “You shouldn’t take it more than once.”

Von Trier is already the “old generation” for young Danish filmmakers, and Aalbæk Jensen reckons there’ll be, at most, another couple of Dogma titles before the movement dies a natural death.

Schepelern is not so sure. “In Denmark, we have a proverb,” he says. “It’s difficult to predict anything, especially the future.”